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Workforce initiatives balance present, future needs

The strong economy has been making it difficult for businesses that need qualified and skilled technical workers. And while some established workforce initiatives with a long-range focus are paying off, other efforts are underway to match workers’ skills with specific jobs in the shorter term, several observers said in recent interviews.

Efforts centering on the emerging workforce, such as students in high school and those attending trade or technical schools, started years ago, said Darlene J. Robbins, president of the Northeast PA Manufacturers and Employers Association, which is based in Pottsville.

“Every region of every county is providing some type of programming,” Robbins said.

Her group has had particular success with the Your Employability Skills, or YES, program. The program teaches students some of the soft skills needed on the job, such as how to interact with co-workers, what constitutes a good work ethic, and ensuring basic levels of math and language skills. In addition, stakeholders consistently are holding job fairs, career fairs, factory visits and other events to connect workers with employers, said Robbins and Courtney L. Fasnacht, executive director of the Northeast PA Manufacturers and Employers Council Inc.

While such efforts are helpful, they are directed at the future, while the needs of employers often are immediate, several observers noted. Those needs are spurring efforts such as a website called CampusEd, which acts sort of like a LinkedIn but for students in high schools, community colleges, universities, and trade schools, as well as adult learners. The target market includes students who are trying to get specific training to fill the exact needs of employers, said Megan McInroy, an attorney who is a co-founder of CampusEd.

The platform, which is still being developed for the Central Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley regions, allows students or workers to create online profiles and then list their academic achievements, professional skills and training – as well as “badges” that attest to a specific skill or course – that an employer can review while trying to make a perfect match, McInroy said. The concept is to simplify the matching process. Students can see what training a particular employer might need and then take courses to achieve a badge or certification to keep them on track, she added.

CampusEd is part of New Jersey-based Condensed Curriculum International, or CCI, which formed in 1993 to help colleges train pharmacy technicians, so it has deep experience in job matching, McInroy said.

Michael Watroba, education services coordinator with York-based Education Consulting Associates, said his company has been working with CCI on identifying the markets that would benefit most from the CampusEd platform, including Central Pennsylvania.

Robbins said she is not familiar with CampusEd, which launched in January, but that career-awareness and skills training are cornerstones to efforts to prepare young people for current and future jobs. She noted that the YES certificates – which would be something that might appear on a student’s CampusEd profile – often attract employers because they know that workers will have basic skills training.

She said the YES program started in York County, where it remains in use.

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Efforts in York also have focused on harder skills, such as trades-oriented training, said Tom Palisin, executive director of The Manufacturers’ Association, a regional group based in York County.

Palisin said historically low unemployment rates – hovering below 4 percent – are frustrating employers, especially those trying to grow. His group’s annual survey of manufacturers found that 70 percent of respondents intend to hire this year, up from 55 percent in the prior year, he said.

“That’s a big jump,” Palisin said. “The rest said they were maintaining their workforces, and no one said they were laying off.”

He, too, said the need to match skills with the jobs in demand is critical.

“There is definitely a push with matching the skills with the current workforce,” he said. The more training is focused on specific demands, the more likely job seekers can find the best-paying jobs, he added.

Several programs – such as the state’s PA CareerLink – attempt to make those connections, he added.

“The unemployment rate is so low it is difficult to find the time to do the matchmaking,” he said, adding that online services can help employers save time.

One issue is career mobility – going from one job to a new, more lucrative one – which makes it tough for employers to keep up, Palisin said. Still, a lot of companies are focusing on retention by offering better pay and benefits to current workers.

He said 80 percent of those who responded to his survey said they have difficulty finding workers.

“So that is everybody,” Palisin said.

David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said elected officials have been taking a much more proactive stance to confronting the workforce challenges, especially with the creation of the workforce command center earlier this year. The command center includes people from the public and private sector who meet routinely to tackle workforce issues.

The streamlining and consolidation of the myriad jobs programs statewide also should help focus training efforts where they are needed, Taylor said.

Matching employers and people with specific skills is important, he added, but the issues still go a “whole level deeper.” Employers remain frustrated by a lack of math and language skills among new hires, as well as basic jobs skills, he said, so it is important not to lose focus on that.

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