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Workforce Woes: Drugs only one issue in unemployment

Drugs and the workforce have become a flash point in Pennsylvania with Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent comments on the subject. Amid a sea of woes in Pennsylvania’s economic recovery, most groups agree drug use is an important issue, but statistics show it’s a shrinking problem in the workforce.

Still, business groups said, it’s something that needs to be tackled so workers have fewer barriers to employment, which helps the economy, too.

“There are many employers who say, ‘Look, we’re looking for people but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug test,’ a lot of them,” Corbett said April 29 on PAMatters’s “Ask the Governor” radio show. “And that’s a concern for me because we’re having a serious problem with that.”

That was part of a larger response to why the state’s rate of recovery was slower than years past. Corbett noted that, although the rate slowed compared with other states, indicators including job growth and unemployment continue to make improvements. It’s headed in the right direction, he said.

The governor’s statement was taken somewhat out of context by Democrats seeking to uproot him in next year’s election. They accused him of having disdain for workers and blaming them for the economy. Supporters say it was a less-than-artful, yet true statement.

It opened a discussion of how big the drug problem is in the workforce and economy.

Many groups agree the problem is one of many, even if it carries serious weight and consequences for workers and companies. Statistics tend to demonstrate it’s small enough to minimize the impact on the economy as a whole.

“The governor’s comments have given us the chance to open up the issue more broadly,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

It’s important to demonstrate to all workers that their choices about drug use have consequences, including not being hired.

Barr was joined recently by other business groups on a conference call with reporters to discuss employment and drug use, including illicit drugs such as marijuana as well as prescription drug abuse. That is a growing problem in the workforce, they said.

Workforce readiness is a national issue, said David Taylor, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. Companies go through hundreds of candidates just to get a handful of hires. Drug testing is one of many readiness issues, alongside the skills gap, punctuality, communication skills and other issues.

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