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Can PA find the right tools to bridge its skills gap?

WorkforceThere’s been no shortage of talk lately when it comes to the strength of Pennsylvania’s workforce. With signs that the economy is really beginning to turn for the better – a point amplified by a sub-five-percent unemployment rate – policymakers and employers alike are again focusing on our state’s ability to attract jobs with a skilled workforce.

Unfortunately, what they are seeing isn’t favorable. Pennsylvania is one of many states that has been tagged with the dreaded “skills gap” moniker, and it’s being viewed as an impediment to new opportunities.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney recently unveiled new, robust plans to better address this well-documented problem. Multi-million-dollar workforce programs have been highlighted by elected leaders and applauded by the state’s business community – a good sign for the future. But how will these efforts pan out? Will they be enough to change the perception of Pennsylvania’s workforce?

The state’s skills gap has always seemed a bit perplexing when you look deeper into the issue. Pennsylvania is home to some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities; has always been known for its hard-working residents; has embraced growing, tech-centric industries; and is a hotbed for labor organizations representing the building trades – a group known for their premier apprenticeship and training programs. Yet, despite these obvious assets, Pennsylvania is still falling short.

The assessments and reports speak for themselves. Last year, CNBC ranked Pennsylvania’s workforce 34th in the nation. Forbes ranked our state 38th in Labor Supply in its annual Best States for Business report. Even the Commonwealth’s largest business advocacy association, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, has highlighted the problem, noting that more than 50 percent of its members struggle to find qualified workers. This is especially true when it comes to skilled labor and manufacturing.

All of this highlights the importance of addressing the problem, and it appears that state policymakers are looking in that direction. But they are not alone. Nationwide, there is a mad dash to see which states can get ahead of the workforce curve the fastest. This means competition is going to be stiff.

Leaders in states like Virginia, New Hampshire and Indiana are making pledges to charge up their workforce systems in hopes of attracting new jobs. If Pennsylvania is to revamp its workforce image and prove to potential employers that the Keystone State is prepared to meet their labor needs, then cooperation and collaboration must be at the forefront.

Georgia is widely considered among the nation’s best states when it comes to providing job creators with a well-trained and skilled workforce. Given this perception, it’s also no surprise that it hovers in the top 10 in nearly every assessment of best places to do business. But, more important to this conversation, at the core of its workforce development image is a comprehensive partnership among all major contributors.  

Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney also have laid out plans that cover the full spectrum of interested parties – businesses, educational entities, organized labor and workforce development organizations. It’s clear this type of approach is the blueprint for success, and the general responses to these collaborative plans seem encouraging, thus far. The question remains: can the wide array of players in this workforce development game continue to remain on the same field?

Seeing how other states are reacting to their own workforce needs and recognizing that Pennsylvania has an uphill climb, the importance of winning on this front cannot be overstated. But, as is often the case, only time will tell if our state’s new efforts will prove successful.


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vince phillips

I think one could also look at the efforts by the Wolf Administration efforts to have agencies work together (L&I and Agriculture) on the farm equipment apprenticeship created in partnership with the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association. This is an encouraging model in developing a jobs-track infrastructure. Granted, that is not a major component of an overall jobs strategy but I think it is a pretty good template.

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