While it may not be a surprise to most NEPA-based employers, workforce preparation, as opposed to job creation, surfaced as the primary theme during the first annual roundtable discussion hosted by the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal and moderated by John Augustine, president and CEO of Penn’s Northeast.
Participants in the discussion included Jill Murray, Ph.D., president elect of Lackawanna College; Dave Horn, representative for Laborers’ International Union of North America at Laborers’-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust; Louis Costanzo, president of L R Costanzo Construction; Rich Rava, assistant director and principal at West Side Career and Technology Center; and Brianna Florovito, workforce and entrepreneurial development specialist, Skills in Scranton, Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.
According to Augustine, the roundtable became possible due to an informational partnership between his organization and The Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal. The event’s goal was to draw attention to some of the issues, needs and trends facing both the regional and national business community.
Almost immediately the topic of workforce development came up, and the group noted that regional employers are dealing with a labor shortage that is driving up the minimum wage. Demand for skilled workers is particularly high in both the technical and skilled trade areas.
“I can’t stress enough that one of the big problems facing the entire nation is the availability of skilled workers,” said Augustine. “The world of work changed suddenly and skill training is now vital for quality employment. Gone are the days when a person could graduate from high school and get a great job at a manufacturing plant.”
Augustine stressed that these changes in the work world are still ongoing with no end in sight, as yet another industrial revolution unfolds. Automation and artificial intelligence increasingly are flooding into business processes, including some areas where one might not expect.
“Even parts of road construction are becoming automated, such as the flag operators at a work site,” said Augustine. “The technology now exists to replace the flaggers with a solar-powered computer system and only have one person monitoring it.”
He added that messaging about the need for technical skills is largely not “getting out” to the general public as young people make decisions about their professional futures. Augustine believes that, in many cases, the best place to obtain needed skills are at a two-year tech and trade school, while also recognizing that each individual student will be suited to different career paths.
Murray firmly declared that the majority of the nation’s schools, while respecting the traditional four-year collegiate educational path, need to focus on training for jobs in trade and vocational areas to meet the expanding demand for these workers. Technology continues to invade products from furnaces to cars, and while manual or “heavy lift” jobs” are still available, the use of robotics within the workplace will continue to reduce the number of these positions.
“As robotics spread, a new work segment is being developed that requires proficiency with the technology needed to install, operate, and service the equipment,” said Dr. Murray. “A different mindset from many of our traditional workplace ideas is required for all this.”
She noted that a negative stigma still exists within the mindsets of many parents about training for tech and vocational jobs, making enrollment at the appropriate schools a tough sell. To combat this stigma, Dr. Murray is advocating a grassroots movement where industrial representatives visit schools and meet with both students and educators to create modern career awareness.
“The career and tech schools are vital in the efforts to meet the demand for tech workers, which is sure to expand,” said Dr. Murray.
She also is envisioning, as the workplace evolves, a transformation of applicable educational models to value-added, progressive hybrid curriculums that include ample instruction in the humanities to develop superior critical-thinking skills and information synthesis. This approach could help to alleviate many of the problems reported with employees who lack soft and problem-solving skills.
Dr. Murray, as she looks ahead, also expects major disruptions to unfold within the nation’s collegiate system.
“We are now seeing troubling economic indicators that may indicate that a recession is inevitable,” said Dr. Murray. “This will kindle current movements to ‘right size’ our colleges, and I’m sorry to say some schools will not survive. Closures are already happening, and we must all be prepared for the change even though none of us can see the specifics of the future.”
According to Florovito, a full 65% of the sustainable jobs now being created around the nation involve technical skills. This metric, which is sure to escalate, seemed to prove the discussion’s emphasis on the need for tech schooling.
She also explained how the chamber is working to help residents of the Greater Scranton area develop these skills. Vital entrepreneur inclusion at the region’s various business incubation is also strong, where quality companies can be born and mature to eventually operate outside of the incubator system.
“The brain drain of intellectual talent and skills continues to be a problem here, so it’s still vital to keep the talent we have here,” said Florovito. “Incubators are a proven way to accomplish this, and even to bring needed skills back to the region.”
The chamber’s workforce initiative, known as Skills in Scranton, is billed as an effort that has worked with, “Local employers, school districts, higher education partners and Pennsylvania data experts to develop strategies that help ensure the regional workforce is aligned with high priority jobs of the future.”
In addition, the chamber is expanding its program that connects area educators with local businesses so that they develop an awareness of how to integrate the business community with education and develop innovative instructional practices.
At Westside Career Tech, approximately 550 students are immersed in skill training directly applicable to tech and vocational careers. Rava explained how the school, to meet employer demands, is now including soft skill training plus career awareness and planning.
He reported that, despite the rosy metrics about employer demand for trade and vocational graduates, a stigma is still hovering over career choices within these areas. This is persisting despite the school’s students are exposed to the required math and science within each curriculum.
“We have recognized that the mindset of many parents must change in regard to the education we deliver for these tech careers,” said Rava. “It is not just about working with your hands. It’s also working with you brain, and we are striving to get this message across.”
Included in this awareness effort are fifth-grade exploration programs along with acceptance of the reality that high school guidance counselors often have no time for career awareness and preparation. Largely, these counselors are absolutely overwhelmed with students enduring crisis situations.
“Many high school shops are also disappearing because of the costs of maintaining the equipment,” said Rava. “Yet, exposure to skills inside these shops remains a vital step for employment within tech industries and to understand the realities of what happens in those careers.”
The team of Costanzo and Horn pledged that they are working concurrently toward the goal of business development. Construction jobs cannot be outsourced, and these positions, despite ample opportunities, are enduring a labor shortage brought on by weak candidate recruitment, worker loss from the Great Recession and baby boomer retirements.
Costanzo voiced an observation that the nation’s educational infrastructure must evolve to meet the needs of the current and future workforce. Massive educational debt, particularly for a four-year degree, is a huge problem for many college graduates that holds them back from becoming true consumers as they enter the workforce.
“A much less expensive two-year degree can be a prosperous ticket to a sustainable tech or vocational job,” said Costanzo.
Horn explained that union reps visit schools to spread the word about union-related summer jobs. Additionally, when students actually visit a job site, they may get a feel for the type of jobs available and kindle a lifetime of interest.
He also noted that, through union apprenticeships, entry-level workers can earn 80% of the union wage rates while learning solid jobs skills. This system also allows participants to generate virtually no educational debt and also become enrolled within a pension system.
“We want these kids to take full advantage of the many opportunities within in our region,” said Horn.
Augustine added that developmental conditions within NEPA for industry continue to look attractive when compared to urban locations. He claimed that regional utility costs are 35% less than in urban areas, and that NEPA locations, as opposed to those in east coast cities, offer a $4 to $6 per square foot operational savings.
“Opportunities also are ongoing with our region’s natural gas business,” said Augustine. “Many people don’t even know about the jobs that have been created here, such as with the gathering pipelines for each well.”
Looking ahead, Augustine noted that future roundtable discussions will have an abundance of topics to choose from. These include the problems with exploding health care costs, changes in the processes within the educational community, the evolution of e-commerce and the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence.