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Partnerships help overcome hurdles like transportation, child care costs, criminal records

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Michael Wilson Jr. is CEO of the U Group, a Harrisburg-based staffing agency that offers door-to-door transportation for workers.
Michael Wilson Jr. is CEO of the U Group, a Harrisburg-based staffing agency that offers door-to-door transportation for workers. - (Photo / )

Finding factory workers can be a challenge in a tight labor market.

But for many employers, so is getting people to a factory job once they are hired. And keeping them coming is proving to be a whole other matter, including for manufacturers like Palmyra-based ASK Foods Inc. that hire dozens of temporary employees on a seasonal basis.

Employees who lack reliable or adequate transportation to work represent one of the most common workforce problems today.

For other workers, it’s the high cost of child care that prevents them from staying with a company. And some people re-entering the workforce after time in prison have trouble finding employers willing to overlook their past and give them a chance, or they lack the skills or experience that companies want.

However, solutions are emerging to these workforce barriers in Central Pennsylvania, solutions that could expand the talent pool from which midstate manufacturers draw employees. Here is a look at some private-sector and government approaches.

Getting there

ASK reached out to Harrisburg staffing company The U Group because the agency offers something that is not always available: door-to-door transportation for workers.

Michael Wilson Jr., CEO of the staffing firm, said he found that a lot of people he was placing in jobs, many with starting pay of around $8.50 to $12 per hour, can’t afford their own cars.

And because round-the-clock bus service is not available, people who rely on public transportation often have trouble getting to or keeping second- and third-shift jobs.

So Wilson started buying passenger vans and hiring drivers to pick people up at their homes, a service he has grown since starting the company three years ago.

“I’m trying something different,” he said. “Eliminating the barrier to transportation is big.”

The U Group now has a fleet of five passenger vans, up from two a year ago. Its six full-time drivers ferry workers to factories at all hours of the day as well as to a variety of other workplaces, including hotels.

The transportation service costs passengers $50 per week, covering Wilson’s costs to run the vans.

Other challenges

Many job candidates lack so-called “soft skills,” such as knowing how to work as part of a team, being flexible when plans change and getting along with co-workers.

Last year HACC started what it calls STEP Academy, a four-week program designed to help people who are unemployed and underskilled, including those with criminal records, focus on improving their employability.

The program is designed to help individuals adjust to being in a workplace by imparting skills in time management and conflict resolution, among other areas, said Vic Rodgers, associate provost for workforce development at HACC.

HACC works with regional workforce and community support organizations, such as CareerLink, as well as local probation and parole departments, to identify people who could benefit from the program.

A U Group van drops off second–shift workers at ASK Foods Inc. in Lebanon County. Looking on from the passenger seat is Julie Spatara, U Group recruiter and transportation manager.
A U Group van drops off second–shift workers at ASK Foods Inc. in Lebanon County. Looking on from the passenger seat is Julie Spatara, U Group recruiter and transportation manager. - ()

The four weeks of soft-skills training are followed by vocational training at HACC in a variety of fields, including computer numerical controls, or CNC, machine technicians.

Since the program started, it has graduated 112 people. Another 35 people are currently enrolled, Rodgers said.

HACC officials routinely reach out to regional employers about job openings for graduates. The options often include call centers and medical offices, among others.

HACC also offers the STEP program in York and has plans to expand it to other campuses. Rodgers also sees STEP as a feeder for apprenticeship programs.

“Manufacturers and other businesses in this community need this pipeline to start,” Rodgers said.

Meanwhile, the United Way of the Capital Region has started a pilot project focused on the same group of people.

The primary service provider for the project is South Central PA Works, the regional workforce development board. With $350,000 in seed money from the United Way, the board is hiring mentors to help employees at companies in the Harrisburg area navigate barriers that interfere with their jobs.

Transportation and child care are two of the most common needs for people earning lower wages, said Adrian Buckner, vice president of community impact for the United Way.

“We want to get individuals to a place that they no longer have to depend on subsidies,” he said.

But until then, the pilot project helps people pay for services they need to keep a job. Over time, as their incomes rise and they learn to budget, the support will ebb.

The first four companies participating in the pilot program are Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Co., Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, UPMC Pinnacle and senior-care provider Messiah Lifeways. The project will bring mentors to the companies monthly between October and January to work with incumbent workers who need support. The companies all have frequent job openings, so new hires also may be helped.

The project’s partners also include the Center For Community Building Inc., a Susquehanna Township-based nonprofit that specializes in workforce support and non-emergency medical transportation services.

For help with child care, the United Way has teamed up with Pennsylvania’s Child Care Information Services, which manages a statewide child care program to help low-income families pay child-care bills.

The pilot project is working with the organization’s offices in Cumberland and Dauphin counties.

The pilot project could be expanded next year.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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