Actalent anticipates positive impact of new Pa. workforce project

When Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an executive order on July 31 establishing the Commonwealth Workforce Transformation Project (CWTP), he put into law the nation’s first workforce training program to take advantage of federal infrastructure funding.

Justin Thomas, a Delaware County native and senior recruiter with Actalent, a global leader in engineering and sciences services and talent solutions, sees the potential benefits the CWTP brings to Pennsylvania.

“I definitely can see it having a positive impact within the Pa. industry, especially from a construction standpoint,” Thomas said. “In our division at Actalent, we deal a lot with federally funded projects that support our clients. COVID obviously slowed everything, and projects are still on the backburners for a lot of companies nowadays.

“Whether it be being able to invest in employees and in projects from a certification standpoint, training and development, I could really see (CWTP) help get more people into the industry, with that additional training and funding that they can offer.”

Thomas knows firsthand the construction industry and the challenges it faces.

“My dad’s in the trades,” he said, “and I worked in construction my whole life before going to college.”

Today, the Bloomsburg University product manages Actalent’s Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) recruiting team for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Thomas and his

team specialize in helping construction and engineering professionals build their careers across different client projects in the region.

He was intrigued when he first learned of the historic workforce program that the Shapiro Administration believes will help accelerate investments in infrastructure development – including repairing roads and bridges, and modernizing energy, water, and sewer infrastructure across the state.

“It’s been very informative to read about the program,” said Thomas. “I’m excited for the Pa. market in general, especially for getting work done. We’re able to partner with our clients and really talk through this and how it can help them, from a training and development purpose and from resources as well, whether that be supply chain issues from this year or dating back to last year, project deadlines, things like that.”

From a construction standpoint, Thomas said he’s eager to see how the program is going to boost the Pennsylvania job market as well as the state’s economy.

“A lot of construction and conceptual design projects, anything that was put on hold when we were in quarantine (during the pandemic), I think this will accelerate that forward. I’m excited to see the positive effects of this program.”

To fund workforce development, Pennsylvania will reserve at least 3% of funding it receives from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). This funding from the IIJA and IRA could lead to as much as $400 million being used for workforce training in Pennsylvania over the next five years. It is the largest infusion in funding for workforce training in state history, with as many as 10,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania being supported by CWTP.

“My understanding of the program is that it’s going to be for employers and employees that would be having funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or the Inflation Reduction Act,” said Thomas. “I believe from a project standpoint it’s going to be up to $400,000 in additional funding for those projects funded federally from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And up to $40,000 in additional funding for new employees as well.”

Knowing the construction industry is struggling to find workers, Thomas anticipates the program positively impacting the industry in Pa. and sees how companies in the state can best utilize the new funding offered through CWTP.

“In today’s economy from what I can see, there are a ton of jobs out there but not necessarily a ton of people for those jobs, whether that be qualification based or that the unemployment rate is very low within the construction area,” he said. “I think that could really be a segue where companies can use that to gain more workers, individuals coming from different backgrounds of education, certification level where that can really help move projects forward with training and development.”

Regarding education and certification, Thomas said the program could benefit those seeking certain certifications, including the challenging OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 courses. OSHA 10 is a 10-hour safety course covering general safety and health hazards for entry-level workers. OSHA 30 is a 30-hour safety course that provides an increased variety of safety subjects along with in-depth, industry-specific training. The latter is intended for supervisors and workers with safety and health responsibility.

“For some of the clients that we work with in central Pa. and in the Philadelphia market as well, having individuals with construction background, construction labor trying to get more technical, trying to earn those Osha 10, Osha 30, American Concrete Institute type of certifications, this is something that can help as workers enter the industry,” said Thomas.

He said additional education, which Actalent helps clients with, will be hastened through CWTP.

“This is going to accelerate that process for companies to gain more workers,” Thomas said, “and effectively get work done quickly.”

International business experts from across Pa. mobilize to assist business

International business experts from Berks, Lancaster, York and additional Pennsylvania counties have committed to be part of the mobilization of Pennsylvania Global Business Advisors. 

The collective comprises a total of 25 international business experts serving all of Pennsylvania. They’ve conducted business in more than 60 countries and speak more than 20 languages. 

The mobilization of Pennsylvania Global Business Advisors (GBA), a private sector, B2B advisory board for regional and international companies seeking to expand exports, imports, foreign direct investment, and international partnerships was announced by the Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC). 

GBA is led by program director Wilfred Muskens. The newly appointed Muskens is Honorary Consul in Philadelphia for the Kingdom of the Netherlands and former Deputy Secretary for the Office of International Business Development for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).  

“Global priorities have changed dramatically since COVID, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and related supply chain disruptions, and no one knows this better than our collective that has done business in more than 60 countries and speaks more than 20 languages,” Muskens said in a statement. 

“What makes Pennsylvania Global Business Advisors truly unique – with nothing else like it in Pennsylvania – is that its members are almost entirely from the private sector, we receive zero government funding and focus exclusively on international trade and investment. We’ve also expanded our reach to include not only the greater Philadelphia area but the entire state of Pennsylvania.” 

Pennsylvania Global Business Advisors will offer international business support and global advisory services harnessing expertise from Pennsylvania businesses and universities that include Fulton Bank and Elizabethtown College among others. Other active partners include the Irish-American Business Chamber and Network, the German-American Chamber, and the Mid-Atlantic Eurasia Business Council. 

GBA will also work in close collaboration with other international organizations in PA, including the Commonwealth’s Office of International Business Development (Department of Community and Economic Development), the PA Department of Agriculture, World Trade Centers in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, World Affairs Councils, bilateral Chambers, Small Business Development Centers and more. Agriculture, finance, health care, life sciences, energy, tourism, logistics and higher education are among the industries to be served. 

Muskens said GBA’s goal is to be a complementary, B2B source of international information and expertise, leveraging but not replacing free and low-cost assistance from state, regional, and federal trade organizations. As well as offering GBA member services where appropriate and useful, GBA will refer companies to those organizations. 

“This exceptional partnership ensures that local businesses can draw on the region’s greatest international minds to build their presence in global markets, and international businesses get easy access to a full range of foreign investment support services,” said CCEDC Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Michael Grigalonis. 

“We’re excited to advance several projects that are already underway including an upcoming trade mission to Ireland, a partnership opportunity with India, a Dutch urban farming endeavor, support of a Canadian manufacturer and services for underrepresented communities including Hispanic-owned businesses.” 

In addition to individual country, cultural and language expertise, other areas of expertise range from strategic planning and market research to more tactical and transactional based services in areas such as international logistics, law, real estate, education and banking. Depending on a client’s individual needs as well as the nature and scope of work, free and fee-based services will also be offered. 

Report: Lancaster County workforce not bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels

The Lancaster County economy is healthy overall, though there are signs of weakness as rising interest rates may dampen business activity, according to the latest report from the Center for Regional Analysis.

Established by the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County in 2018, the center provides insight into local market conditions and consumer sentiment.

Rae Ann Miller, the center’s data analyst, said a few trends stood out in the report, which was released early this month.

One involves the size of the labor force, which seems to be settling into numbers that are below pre-pandemic levels, she said.

COVID-19 severely disrupted Lancaster County’s labor market, and the “new equilibrium” appears to be normalizing at a lower level when compared with 2019, the report noted.

That year, Lancaster County had 288,400 people in the labor force. In 2021, the number averaged 284,900.

Rather than returning to 2019 (pre-pandemic) numbers, this year’s labor market is comparable to 2021. Through the first eight months of 2022, Lancaster County’s labor force is again averaging 284,900 people, around 1.2% lower than in 2019.

The report concluded that COVID-19 “likely accelerated demographic forces already in play,” with economists having previously pointed to the aging population as a factor in the shrinking size of the labor force. The decline in labor supply only accelerated with the pandemic as “waves” of people left the labor force simultaneously.

Though it affects all sectors, the tightness in the labor market is most severe in leisure and hospitality. In September, there were 3,300 fewer workers in that sector in Lancaster County than in 2019, even with businesses reporting strong demand.

“Expect labor markets to remain tight given the labor supply, especially as businesses try to hire for the coming holiday season,” the report said.

The county’s unemployment rate was 3.3% in September.

Across all industries in Lancaster County, the average yearly pay is $53,803. The top two employment industries – health care/social services and manufacturing – have average pay above that, along with construction and professional business services.

On average, professional business services pays the most at $68,322 a year, while trade, transportation, utilities, and leisure and hospitality pay the least, with leisure and hospitality coming in at 60% under the county average.

“Notably, this data is influenced by part-time workers, thus sectors with a significant number of part-time workers will have their average pulled down,” the report explained. “Sectors that pay lower average wages and historically have more part-time workers are having more difficulty returning to pre-pandemic levels of employment.”

Miller also noted what emerged in interviews with local business owners, which was that managing costs and the shadow of economic uncertainty may overtake labor issues as their biggest challenges.

Escalating interest rates are a concern for business pipelines, the report said, with construction one of the key sectors experiencing a softening of demand. This is being interpreted “as a potential early warning for where the economy is headed in the coming year.”

Consumer sentiment up significantly

The report also included encouraging news, as consumer sentiment in Lancaster County is on the rise. The measurement of that metric climbed to 72.86 in September, an 11-point improvement from July.

“The recent gains signal that the local sentiment is beginning to move away from scores reflective of recessionary periods,” the report explained; the local reading is also much higher than national consumer sentiment, which is still at recessionary levels despite gaining over the summer months.

The local poll showed improved attitudes toward current conditions and the future. County households were more positive about the strength of the local economy and their household’s financial situation.

The number of households that reported being better off than a year ago doubled, from 7% in July to 14% in September. Still, 44% of households said they were worse off, as inflation remains a persistent problem.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Cumberland County Commissioners approve more COVID recovery grants

The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners recently approved an additional $1.21 million in Cumberland County Recovery Grants to businesses/nonprofits for COVID-19 recovery.

Receiving funds earmarked for capital improvement projects are:

· Jeffrey W. & Jo Anne Coy Public Library of Shippensburg, $78,252

· Joseph T. Simpson Public Library, $318,850

· Cleve J. Fredericksen Library, $79,843

· New Hope Ministries Inc., $350,000

· Carlisle Tool Library, $66,500

· Employment Skills Center, $133,441

· Marantha-Carlisle, $54,187

· United Way of Carlisle & Cumberland County, $129,645

In total, the county has granted almost $17.26 million in COVID-19 recovery money to colleges and in the areas of mental and physical health, infrastructure and businesses/nonprofits.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

UPMC assesses the most pressing midstate health care needs

Behavioral health, access to health care and prevention are the three most pressing health care needs in Central Pennsylvania in the post-pandemic world.

Tina Nixon, vice president, Mission, Effectiveness and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, UPMC in Central Pennsylvania, said a health needs assessment outlined what people are facing after being homebound and, in many cases, isolated since the pandemic hit in 2020.

The assessment, which looks at the needs for 2022 through 2025, shows an increase in the need for behavioral health due to mental health issues and addiction.

The study also showed there are barriers to people seeking care as they try to navigate the health care system, and a lack of awareness around programs that offer preventative care.

The UPMC study, conducted every three years, surveyed community stakeholders, patients, community leaders, physicians, the faith community, and anyone using UPMC services, Nixon said.

“We need to improve access to and awareness of mental health services,” she said. The main issues – transportation and a shortage of providers.

“We were able to quickly move to telehealth during COVID so we can offer that platform,” she said. “But there is still a waiting list.”

A state report, conducted by the Wolf Administration, released last week, also showed a need for increased mental health services.

A Behavioral Health Commission for Adult Behavioral Health, established by Act 54 of 2022, which made $100 million in one-time American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding available to support adult behavioral health needs, is charting a path for investments, said Acting Human Services Secretary Meg Snead.

Nixon said the UPMC survey showed the lack of mental health providers is partially because many people changed careers during the pandemic.

The state commission, seeing similar statistics, recommends $37 million should be directed to recruitment and retention initiatives to attract qualified professionals and assist those who do this work, so they are not overly stressed and burning out.

Nixon said UPMC is actively recruiting, letting people know the opportunities that exist both in person and via telehealth. Recruitment teams are reaching into the schools, as early as middle school, to promote the vocation, she said.

“We are not alone. All the (health care) systems in Central Pennsylvania are experiencing this, so the impact is great,” Nixon said. “We have to go above and beyond to attract and retain providers.”

While the state and UPMC, along with others in the field, are looking to recruit providers, Nixon said the demand for services needs to be addressed now. Specifically, she said, the UPMC survey shows a spike in demand from teens and African-Amercian males.

“There has been an overall increase in all populations,” she added, “stemming from isolation and adjustments. The pandemic created the inability to interact with friends and a loss of employment.”

In addition, “People don’t know how to find the resources they need so we have to bring awareness to what providers are available,” she said.

To that end, UPMC is creating a “one-stop shop” by imbedding specialists in primary care facilities and community health clinics.

Providing that service has helped, but Nixon said many people have difficulty getting to the facilities due to lack of transportation, especially in rural areas.

The health system has a mobile unit that travels to those areas offering medical assistance and addiction services. Nixon said they also have coordinated care teams that visit the homebound and those recently released from the hospital.

“Our visit teams provide education, medication and safety checks,” she said. “They also provide a bridge between the time a patient is released from the hospital until their follow-up visit with the doctor,” providing wound care, medication checks and education.

Education, she said, runs the gamut from teaching people to monitor their blood pressure to teaching people how to use phones, computers or tablets for telehealth visits.

“People didn’t go to the doctor during COVID and now that they are seeking care, many are sicker than they would have been,” Nixon said.

“We need to look at ways to address the barriers and we can’t do that alone,” she said. “We have to work with other community organizations to provide all the services.”

Those services include prevention. “We want to promote wellness by looking at health related social needs,” she said.

The health system offers community-based health programs for blood pressure and diabetes care and exercise programs with instructors that look like the population they are working with.

Nixon said the programs are not only informative, but they create connection, reducing the feeling of isolation.

“This is not a one-size fits all issue,” Nixon said. “We need to meet people where they are and provide the services necessary to get them the help they need.”

Economy adds 528,000 jobs in July, smashing expectations

The U.S. labor market performed well beyond expectations last month, adding 528,000 jobs and dropping the unemployment rate to 3.5%.

That’s the lowest unemployment has been since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The report from the Labor Department also showed that all the jobs lost in the coronavirus recession have been restored.

July’s jobs number, which defied recession fears and rampant inflation, is the most since February and is up from 398,000 in June.

The Labor Department also revised May and June hiring totals, adding an extra 28,000 jobs in those months. Employment was particularly strong last month in the health care industry and at hotels and restaurants.

“Recession – what recession?” Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch Ratings, wrote after the numbers came out. “The U.S. economy is creating new jobs at an annual rate of 6 million – that’s three times faster than what we normally see historically in a good year. ‘’

And Eric Merlis, managing director of global markets at Citizens, said in a statement: “This was a surprisingly strong jobs report that shows how robust the U.S. labor market is. The numbers support economic growth and should give the Fed more ammunition for aggressive actions to tame inflation.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

COVID-era waivers expanding telehealth reimbursements set to end this year

Health care providers supercharged their telemedicine offerings as a result of the pandemic—however, how those providers will be reimbursed for virtual care moving forward is in question.  

Prior to the pandemic, most providers did not receive enough reimbursements from insurance companies to justify expanding their telehealth coverage.  

That changed when the Centers for Medicare & Medical Services, a federal agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid programs across the country, introduced leniencies on HIPPA requirements on video software and broadened access to Medicare telehealth services.   

Third party payers followed suit by expanding their telehealth service coverage, offering advanced payments to independent health care providers and waiving fees for members using virtual care.  

Coverage that was previously based on the discretion of insurance companies, has become common across insurers, said Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania (HAP). 

“The number one impediment to telehealth expansion was that there was no payment model that you could get return on your investment because a lot of insurers wouldn’t pay for telehealth consults or appointments,” said Carter. “COVID changed that dramatically, where immediately public payers and private payers were paying for it across the board.”  

In a 2022 report on national survey trends in telehealth use, researchers with the US Office of Health Policy noted that from March to April 2020, telehealth use skyrocketed across the country from 1% to 80% in “places where the pandemic prevalence was high.”  

Today, patient usage of telehealth is significantly down from the days of quarantine, with the report finding that percentage had dropped to around 20% among adult respondents to a survey given between Sept. 29 and Oct. 11, 2021.  

Providers see telehealth usage remaining much higher than pre-pandemic levels with the focus now turning to how providers and insurers can work together to standardize telehealth.  

Standardizing telehealth  

HAP has spent years trying to standardize telehealth protocols and practices, particularly when it comes to reimbursing providers for telehealth services.  

Their most recent effort on that front has been backing Senate Bill 705, legislation that would require insurers to pay providers no matter if that provider is in that insurers’ network.  

Carter said that in the past, the association supported bills that would provide parity between in-person and virtual care, meaning that payers would need to reimburse providers equally for either service, but the association has now agreed to leave pricing to individual payers and providers.  

“We argue that standardization is hugely important,” said Carter. “Insurance is already complicated enough and a patient’s access to care through telehealth should not be a lottery. Parity was a nonstarter for our friends in the insurance community. We agreed to new language as an alternative.”  

HAP is also currently in support of House Bill 2419, which would allow for more flexibility for the state to allow providers to offer mental health services through telehealth permanently.  

House Bill 2419 has been passed in the House and is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate.  

Pennsylvania’s COVID-era waivers that explicitly authorized telehealth services to expand during the pandemic will expire this October. 

The waivers were set to expire at the End of June and were extended by the General Assembly on June 30.  

The waivers expand access to telehealth services, increase vaccine access, allow hospitals to quickly adapt to emergencies by altering space as needed for influxes of patients, and ease regulatory barriers to clinician licensing. 

Pennsylvania does not have any statutes that will prohibit the practice of telemedicine after the waivers expire but payers will be able to stop reimbursing for telehealth.  

“Absent the current COVID driven waivers and flexibilities, we won’t sustain telehealth the way we did before COVID,” said Carter. “It’s not supposed to go away. People got used to it.”  

Providing care in the virtual space  

In the two years since providers have embraced telehealth, virtual care has had a massive impact on how the industry cares for patients.  

Providers are now looking at how things like wearable technology and remote patient monitoring can keep tabs on patient health between visits, said Christopher LaCoe, vice president of virtual health at Penn State Health.  

“We’ve moved to the point where we have all these opportunities to do checkups for diabetes. We might be able to do that stuff here and then send (the diabetic patient) to the eye doctor and not make them drive to our office,” said LaCoe, adding that educators are now taking telehealth services into consideration when they teach incoming providers. “Medical schools are putting this in their curriculum. They used to say you need to see diabetic (patients) every three months and now they say once a year.”  

LaCoe, credited the waivers, calling the changes that happened to telehealth the pandemic’s “silver lining.”  

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health was early to the market on allowing telehealth for its providers, but prior to the pandemic, providers had little guidance on what that should look like, said Dr. Tim Law, vice president and executive medical director at Highmark.  

“Highmark said you can do telehealth, but we won’t tell you how to do it—it wasn’t front and center,” said Law, noting that changed quickly during the pandemic. “We put together a virtual care playbook. Five years ago, I don’t think anyone would have thought of doing this. It includes where to find supplies, how to access Bluetooth technology so you can do remote patient monitoring and we show them what states allow providers to work across state borders.”  

Highmark provides parity for its covered providers using telehealth with some of the states the payer operates in mandating it.  

However, even though some insurers are ahead of the curve with how they support and pay for telehealth with their covered providers, providers outside of a network may find themselves without telehealth reimbursements, said Carter.  

“Some insurers will say we provide telehealth to our covered lives. It’s only to the telehealth providers they’ve enrolled in their network,” said Carter. “That’s a model that leaves a lot of people without access to their preferred provider. Someone they know and trust.” 

Letter to the editor: Ensuring that Pa. communities have access to vaccines

Our world has changed dramatically, and we must do everything we can to ensure Pennsylvania communities have quick and ample access to vaccinations.During the pandemic, the federal government estimates that pharmacies provided more than two of every three COVID-19 vaccine doses to Americans. A recent study by the Journal of American Pharmacists Association (JAPhA) found there were 15% more pharmacies than physician offices in low-income communities. Pharmacies also were open significantly more hours.Unfortunately, this availability would stop once the federal government declares an official end to the public health emergency. Pennsylvania could join other states, including Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Illinois, in providing pharmacists the permanent ability to administer COVID-19 and other routine vaccinations. State legislation – House Bill 1535 and Senate Bill 511 – have been drafted to do just that.Americans support Pennsylvania’s legislative effort. A recent survey by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores found that 68% support giving pharmacies the permanent ability to provide vaccinations. State lawmakers should act now on this common-sense legislation.Patrick Lavella is president-elect of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association and manager of strategic pharmacy initiatives at Value Drug Company in Duncansville. He also owns Hilltop Pharmacy in Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania unemployment rate drops below 5% 

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped below 5% in March, something the state hasn’t seen since the rate peaked at 16.5% during the early days of the pandemic. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) announced this week that the state’s unemployment dropped two-tenths of a percentage point last month to 4.9%. 

The rate marks a steady decrease from its heights in 2020 and brings the state under its pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 5% in February 2020. 

Pennsylvania’s civilian labor force increased by 17,000 in March. The employment count rose 32,000 while resident unemployment declined by 15,000. 

Jobs increased in eight of the 11 industry subsectors with professional and business services seeing the largest gain from February. 

Approximately 83% of jobs lost since the pandemic state have been recovered, according to L&I. 

“This month’s jobs report marks the 23rd consecutive month in Pennsylvania without an unemployment rate increase,” said L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier. “The numbers show the commonwealth continues to rebound strongly from the devastating effects of the pandemic, which put an enormous strain on our labor force. The datasets we are releasing today highlight the resilience of the millions of Pennsylvania workers doing their part to keep our economic recovery headed in the right direction.” 

Across the country, the U.S. unemployment rate also dropped by two-tenths of a percentage point last month, declining to 4.6%. 

WellSpan’s COVID response gets statewide recognition

WellSpan York Hospital in York – HARRISON JONES

WellSpan Health was recognized by The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania for having one of the top 10 entries – out of nearly 80 – in the 2022 COVID Response Innovation Awards.

The York-based health network’s commitment to equitable access and innovative vaccination strategy with at-risk populations was selected by a panel of independent judges. It’s the third straight year WellSpan’s been honored by the association.

“WellSpan was one of the first in the Commonwealth to bring mobile vaccines to homebound patients,” Ann Kunkel, vice president of community health and engagement, said in a release.

“We brought the vaccine directly to places like Trinity House and Brindle Estates in Franklin County and Delphia House and Stonybrook in York. In fact, our protocols were shared across the commonwealth because of our important work for our neighbors.”

From February through June 2021, the number of at-risk community members scheduled for vaccine appointments and administration of the vaccine increased, resulting in 22,595 total doses administered to at‐risk community members at WellSpan vaccine clinics and mobile clinics.

Forward Together Lebanon unveils ‘roadmap for the future’ 

Formed in the crucible of the pandemic, the Forward Together Lebanon team helped deliver information and resources to businesses often hanging on for dear life. 

Now, more than two years after the onset of COVID-19 and its unprecedented challenges, the group has produced an economic recovery blueprint – a document Susan Eberly called “a roadmap for the future.” 

The plan has identified a four-phase approach: responding, recovering, reimagining and rebuilding. 

Three primary areas – empowering small business, supporting the current and future workforce, and improving quality of place and livability – are addressed while recognizing others that need to be dealt with, too. 

Members of the eight-member Forward Lebanon task force, which includes business, nonprofit, health care and education leaders, wanted hard data on which to base their decisions and planning, said Eberly, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp. 

They also wanted community input, so meetings with stakeholders were a key part of the process, she said. 

And they sought the flexibility to revise the document as necessary to ensure that it reflects the current phases/stages of recovery, Eberly said. 

Team member Barb Kauffman helped launch the group’s website, forwardtogetherlebanon.com, to assist businesses and others in the community to navigate COVID-19. 

She said the website, also in Spanish, is quite comprehensive. “It has everything on it” and is user friendly. 

The key is to get information out quickly, said Kauffman, owner of Kauffman Creative Services marketing agency in Palmyra. 

“I won’t say it’s a rosy picture yet” but the business environment is improving, she said. “My clients are getting busier. Restaurants are picking up in my backyard.” 

‘Let’s invest in people’ 

Several items stand out in the report, Eberly said. One is the need for trust, confidence and communication. 

“This … came out loud and clear during the stakeholders’ meetings,” Eberly said. People want leadership to work together to tackle not only COVID challenges, but also Lebanon County’s social systemic challenges. 

For example, the document emphasized thar Latinx-owned businesses would benefit from stronger support and connection with existing resources. 

“The report clearly shows that an area of trust … was lacking due to not having diverse voices at the table,” Eberly said, requiring a renewed focus on that. 

Rafael Torres, a co-founder of the WEPA Empowerment Center, said COVID-19 further exposed these problems. 

The creation of Tec Centro Lebanon – a one-stop shop for job training and skills programs for the under- and unemployed, especially those facing a language barrier – will be part of the solution, he said. 

A similar center that’s an initiative of the Spanish American Civic Association has operated out of Lancaster. The Tec Centro Lebanon project was recently awarded $750,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money by the Lebanon County Commissioners. 

“Let’s invest in people,” Torres said. “We didn’t do that enough before.” 

As local employers buy into the Tec Centro workforce development model, program graduates will have access to better jobs with better wages, he said. 

According to the report, Lebanon County is particularly strong in agriculture, manufacturing, retail trade and transportation/warehousing. But small businesses, especially in hospitality, tourism and the arts, have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. 

Another conclusion of the blueprint is the need for a housing strategy. 

“Lebanon County has a shortage of affordable homes for its residents,” the report said, and its population is projected to grow 6% more in the next decade. “Housing availability is a major indicator of community and economic resilience,” and the last housing study was conducted in 2004. 

More than 54,000 households in the county are in poverty or within the ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) threshold. 

Household income levels of Black and Latinx residents are about two-thirds that of white and Asian residents in the county, similar to the dynamics regionally and statewide. 

Latinx residents also have experienced especially high levels of unemployment during COVID-19. 

In addition, Lebanon County residents have lower educational attainment levels compared with the region and the state, the report noted, with fewer having attended or graduated from higher education programs. 

And a gap is growing in quality childcare opportunities for working parents, too. 

What also comes through in the blueprint is the need to “reimagine what the new normal will look like,” Eberly said. 

During the pandemic, “to stand still was not an option,” she explained. “Sound decisions throughout every sector involved diversity in thought and creativity. That remains true for the recovery period. … As we focus on some core objectives, this new normal will start to have a life of its own.” 

Elco Superintendent Julia Vicente, a member of the Forward Together Lebanon team, said the county’s six superintendents “truly worked as one unit” during COVID-19. 

The problem-solving was constant. 

Now they’re talking about re-envisioning, she said, about what life is going to be like going forward in this new normal. 

Taking the opportunity to revise its strategic plan, Elco has started to draft goals. 

That includes creating a portrait of a graduate, determining what skills, traits and foundation that student should have to maximize future success. 

Also, teaching and learning absorbed a significant hit in the pandemic, and that gap must be closed, Vicente said. 

It’s about resilience, she said. “How do we support our students in overcoming obstacles?” 

“Our community’s changing so much,” Eberly said. “We have to come up with a vision to keep our county healthy.”