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Wolf steps up workforce push with new 'Command Center'

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Gov. Tom Wolf
Gov. Tom Wolf - (Photo / )

Business leaders and elected officials in Pennsylvania are touting a new effort to take on workforce-development challenges even as an audit criticized the state's efforts so far.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Feb. 19 unveiled a “Command Center” dedicated to helping Pennsylvania companies find the workers they need.

The announcement, though, coincided with the release of an audit of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Board and its system. The audit covered a period from July 1, 2014 through Nov. 30, 2018 and found a lack of coordination among the state’s workforce development initiatives, among other problems.

“We found that the state board has suffered from an unclear vision, mission, and purpose,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a cover letter to the 96-page audit report. “During our audit, we found that the Governor, including representatives from his office, failed to fully articulate his vision and goals for Pennsylvania’s workforce system.”

DePasquale also wrote that the board was not meeting the needs of employers. In particular, the audit found that the state’s educational system needs to prepare students with work-readiness skills, such as “punctuality, communication, problem-solving ability, teamwork, accepting direction and criticism, meeting deadlines, and keeping a positive attitude.”

In addition, the audit found that the state could do a better of job of promoting skilled trades and jobs that don’t require a college education and by retraining workers 55 and older.

In an interview Wednesday, DePasquale said that Wolf and his team could have taken his audit personally and “gotten into a defensive posture.”

“But they didn’t,” DePasquale said. “We all want to get to the same place.”

Common goals

Spokesmen for Wolf and DePasquale said Wednesday that the governor’s plan and the audit were parallel endeavors. The announcements were coordinated, with DePasquale attending the event held by Wolf to introduce the command center. DePasquale, who will be involved in Wolf’s new initiative, praised the governor’s latest effort.

By joining the The Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, DePasquale added, he can ensure that some of his key audit findings aren’t overlooked. Primarily, he said, state agencies often were not aware of what other agencies were doing and sometimes acted at cross-purposes.

Gov. Tom Wolf has appointed three people from the private sector and three cabinet secretaries to lead the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, a new program to tackle the state’s shortage of skilled workers.

  • Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
  • Tony Bartolomeo, co-chair of Team Pennsylvania, a nonprofit established in 1997 to connect private and public sector leaders in economic development
  • Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO, which is one of the state’s largest unions.
  • Acting Secretary Kathy Boockvar, Department of State.
  • Secretary Dennis Davin, Department of Community and Economic Development.
  • Secretary Jerry Oleksiak, Department of Labor & Industry.

While the Command Center might appear to be just another government panel, he and others said, it will be unique in several ways. For one, its members include Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO, ensuring the voices of private industry and labor are constantly in the ears of state officials.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, said the new Command Center will be distinct from previous efforts made over the years in other ways, including its sense of urgency. The group will meet weekly so it can react on issues and plans immediately.

The concerns of industry leaders are well known, including a worker shortage at a time of record-low unemployment rates statewide and nationally.

Businesses also have long complained about an ill-equipped workforce, partly because of the lack of so-called soft skills – such as the basic work habits identified in the audit – and also because of an overemphasis on a college education. An acute lack of workers in skilled manufacturing and construction jobs has been a problem for years.

Barr said one of his goals is to take a critical look at the many state workforce programs and make sure they are meeting the needs of employers. That oversight includes ensuring tax dollars are being spent effectively. Barr pointed out that the jobs-skills gap was top-of-mind for companies taking the chamber’s annual economic survey. Finding skilled and qualified workers is the No. 1 concern facing companies, he said.

 Efforts to reach Bloomingdale were unsuccessful as of press time.

Better late than never

Some observers of the state and national economy have noted that the long economic expansion means that the country is overdue for a recession, even if it might be a mild one compared to the major correction more than 10 years ago. While his audit faulted the state for not acting earlier to prepare for the growing economy, DePasquale said that it’s not too late to start now, even if a slowdown does occur.

“We may have missed out with some things,” he said. “But getting this right and moving forward will mean a lot to a lot of people.”

Observers have noted, however, that people who entered manufacturing or the skilled trades in previous generations have been frustrated that they often are the first people laid off when a recession hits. Those workers, as well as their children who might be entering the workforce now, may be skeptical that good-paying jobs would endure the next downturn.

Barr said such concerns are understandable but it means that future workers need to have adaptable skills that will allow them to be flexible as technologies and industries change. For example, right now there is a shortage of truck drivers even as autonomous vehicles are being developed that might reduce the number jobs in that industry, he said. But such changes can be expected in just about every sector.

Workers who have been taught “core competencies” – such as basic computer skills and how to constructively solve problems with co-workers – will be best prepared for future changes, Barr said.

“Those skills will allow you to jump from one career to another,” he said.

DePasquale noted that no one can predict what the best jobs will be 10 years into the future, but leaders today can make sure that the workforce has the skills mentioned in his audit, including critical thinking. Workers who understand business and who have an appreciation for the entrepreneur would be prepared no matter what twists might occur, he said.

The fact is, he added, businesses that want to locate to an area will need to be assured that there is a well-trained workforce. If one is lacking, the state will have trouble luring new companies while existing companies will have trouble expanding, observers have noted.

The announcements by Wolf and DePasquale also coincided with legislative announcements of efforts focused on workforce development. House Majority Leader Bryan Cuter (R-Lancaster) said he plans to move several bills in the next few weeks that address the skills gap and worker shortage.

“For too long there has been a mismatch between what we produce and what the economy needs in terms of an educated or skilled workforce,” he said in a written statement.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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