‘Critical Moment’ For Firms Amid Retirements, Opioid Crisis

Jun 4, 2018

For the first time since the recession hit a decade ago, the demand for workers is steady.

But leaders with many of the companies trying to fill those posts statewide - in areas such as manufacturing, health care and transportation - say they are stymied by a lack of workers ready, willing or able to do the work.

A decades-long education message that economic development leaders say stigmatized the trades, and an opioid crisis draining America's "prime" pool of 25- to 54 year-old workers, have fueled the troubling trend - a situation further complicated by the fact that a generation of baby boomers is now retiring.

State officials predict that the hiring woes will only get worse, with the demand for already plentiful jobs such as truck-driver and nurse to see double digit surges by 2024. The need for electricians - much like many other trades - is expected to surge by more than 12 percent, Department of Labor data shows.

"It's the best time in a long time to be looking for a new job," Johnstown Area Regional Industries Workforce Development Director Deb Balog said, pointing to Cambria County's 1,000 or more ever-changing job postings monthly since last summer.

But for communities such as New Castle, Johnstown and Sharon - areas where unemployment still falls between 5.2 percent (Mercer County) and 6.3 percent (Lawrence County) - the timing couldn't be worse.

'We aren't prepared'

To Gale Measel Jr, of New Castle-based GEM Building Contractors, the problem shouldn't be a surprise. Manufacturers and the communities they call home "ramped down" for so long that they didn't consider the possibility of a rebound in the industry, he said.

"We have been down and diminished so long," Measel said. "We have been so low-profile so anti-economic growth for so long (that) we aren't prepared for any of it."

Balog said there's more behind the worker shortage than the rapid retirement of a generation of employees. There was an unintended consequence delivered to their Generation X and Millennial offspring.

"For decades, the message we were telling high school students was that if they wanted to succeed in life, they had to go to college - they needed that four-year degree," Balog said. "Ten years ago, there was no push here to train people in the trades or to guide them toward jobs in fields like transportation."

A growing number of jobs that were ignored - or never considered - are now in high demand.

"I've never seen labor shortages as severe as they are right now - particularly in the skilled trades," said Shawn Kaufman, human resources director for Somerset-based Riggs Industries.

His company was looking to fill dozens of production field jobs such as welding, mechanics, machine operators and painters as of early May.

This is happening in areas of Pennsylvania and the nation where blue-collar work once fed many families.

Nursing - a field that has provided plenty of well-paying jobs to communities across the United States for decades - is also seeing shortages, driven not by a shallow worker pool but by a surging demand.

The pool of qualified candidates might not be large enough to fill Pennsylvania's projected need forecasted for the years ahead, Quality Life Services Chief Administrative officer Susie Tack Beardsley said.

"It used to be nursing was the way to go if you were a woman who wanted a career, but women have so many more options now," said Beardsley, whose company owns the 204-bed Golden Hill Nursing Home in New Castle.

That's "a wonderful thing" for women in general, she said, but it can leave those tasked with filling licensed nursing positions struggling to fill their rolls.

Statewide shortages

The state provides data on high-priority jobs to help regional workforce boards figure out where to invest their money, said Keith Bailey, director of the Center for Workforce Information and Analysis for the Department of Labor and Industry.

That means trying to help identify areas where their investment might stretch the farthest while helping the most workers and employers.

The state also projects what jobs are expected to be in demand, while sorting the information based on the level of training or education needed to do the work.

Analysts focus on the "imbalance between what's needed and what's available," Bailey said.

As more stores add self-service lanes for shoppers, the number of cashiers needed in Pennsylvania is expected to decline. There were almost 148,000 cashiers in Pennsylvania in 2014, according to Labor and Industry projections. By 2024, that number will be done to 147,000, but there are still 6,000 openings a year for people to do that job.

Similarly, while shopping malls struggle with store vacancies, the number of retail salespeople needed across the state is only expected to increase slightly. There were 196,000 retail salespeople in 2014. That's expected to increase to 202,000 in 2024. There are a projected 7,400 job openings a year for that job.

The Wolf Administration has tried to tackle the needs for more and better-trained workers on a number of fronts. The governor has asked the Legislature to provide $50 million in the 2018-19 budget to pay for a variety of workforce development initiatives, which the administration has touted as PAsmart.

'No longer a luxury'

Some of the fastest-growing jobs in the next few years will be in health care, but labor estimates suggest there will also be strong demand for truck drivers and some industrial jobs.

The state predicts these looming increases:

—Nursing assistants - 12 percent by 2024, with 2,700 job openings a year. Starting pay is about $23,420, with average pay at $29,190.

—Registered nurses - 14 percent by 2024, with close to 5,000 job openings a year. Pay starts at $51,340 a year and averages $68,770.

—Electricians - 14 percent, with 600 job openings a year. Pay starts at $38,330 and averages $60,160.

—Carpenters - 10 percent, with 1,000 job openings a year. Pay starts at $29,700 a year and averages $48,600.

—Tractor-trailer drivers - 12.4 percent, with 2,335 openings a year. Pay starts at $31,410 and averages $45,270.

Pennsylvania's key stakeholders - employers, colleges and other educators - need to prepare to fill the void, the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Conference on Community Development leaders warned.

In their 2017 report "Inflection Point," the economic development group projected a work-force shortfall of more than 80,000 through 2027 across a 10-county region spanning from Lawrence County to Fayette County.

"Our numbers do not add up," Allegheny Conference Chairman and PNC Financial Services Group CEO Bill Demchak wrote, saying changes must be made to change course. "With Baby Boomers retiring, not enough skilled workers to take their place and slow inward migration ... we are at a critical moment for the future of our region."

Bob Garrett, president of the Greater Susquehanna Chamber of Commerce agreed.

For those working to spur economic growth and business development at a local level, practical solutions must be found, he said.

"This is no longer a luxury," he said. "This is not something we can afford to just chat about over cocktails."