Employers, Other Community Partners Discuss Regional Workforce Crisis

On October 27th, employers and other community partners from across South Central Pennsylvania gathered together to examine, identify, and discuss our region’s workforce crisis. The event, The Workforce Crisis: Regional Issues & Answers, was held in partnership by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC and Dixon University Center.

In her opening remarks, Dr. Sue Mukherjee, Executive Director of Program Alignment and Policy Development for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), shared with attendees that she hopes the event will serve as a jumpstart to a series of dialogues on system alignment between the business and education communities. The two sectors must work together to collaboratively develop and execute solutions in order to truly resolve the regional workforce crisis.

Mr. Richard Overmoyer, President & CEO of Fourth Economy Consulting, provided an insightful an presentation on how the Capital Region compares to other cities across America. He outlined why Pennsylvania, and particularly the Capital Region, has a workforce crisis. Because of its slow population growth, the Capital Region will have approximately 1,000 fewer employees by 2025, while competitive regions will grow by 50,000-80,000 over the same period. He anticipates that the Capital Region will need over 50,000 people in the next decade to be competitive, and it is critical that college-age students through age 44 be recruited. These employment statistics will drive GDP growth in the 7% range versus well over 200% growth predicted in other communities.

The first step in resolving the employment issue is to focus on the quality of place in the Capital Region. Mr. Overmoyer has found that the communities that continue to do well and grow have created a flexible system for its workers. He talked about cities like Austin, TX, Durham, NC, and Boise, ID. In addition to place, the success of these communities center on four common threads: public and private investment; economic, social, and environmental sustainability; engagement with diversity; and the cultivation, attraction, and retention of talented workers. To achieve success and become more economically vibrant, each of these communities came up with a bold vision, generated immense support through broad civic infrastructure which was regional and non-partisan in nature, and exhibited a dual focus on industry growth and quality of place. He recommended that the Capital Region take a similar approach to help resolve the workforce crisis at hand.

Following Mr. Overmoyer’s presentation, presidents from some of our regional colleges and universities participated in a panel discussion to share ways their respective institutions are responding to the workforce crisis. Dr. John “Ski” Sygielski reported that HACC is in the process of reengineering coursework with the help of advisory committees to design curricula that better meets the immediate, short-term needs of employers. Dr. Mukund Kulkarni highlighted Penn State Harrisburg’s vast degree offerings, noting that they provide for many different kinds of programs to meet employers’ diverse needs. It was evident that local higher education institutions are well aware of the workforce crisis and are already taking proactive steps to address it in their own capacities.

In their closing statements, the panelists suggested ways business and education can work together on the workforce issue. Dr. Karen Scolforo of Central Penn College stated career awareness is the key; students must be exposed to career opportunities prior to entering postsecondary education. Harrisburg University’s Eric Darr called for the breaking down of silos, expressing the need for the K-12 system and higher education to work together, as well as increased engagement from the business community. Dr. Frank Brogan, PASSHE Chancellor, said there must be a more analytic look taken at the skills gap issue and the supply and demand gap.

The employers then had a chance to voice their opinions during a facilitated discussion led by Paul Caulfield of Dering Consulting Group. Mr. Caulfield asked attendees a series of sixteen questions related to the regional workforce crisis in general, as well as their own personal experiences relating to employment at their respective businesses. Here are some interesting polling statistics that came out of the interactive session:

  • The largest age group represented in our region’s workforce is 35-44 year olds, not 45-54 year olds as most attendees predicted.
  • The average annual wage of our region’s workforce ($45,760) is below the state’s average wage ($53,612).
  • Fifty-three percent of attendees believe our region has a workforce crisis, while forty-seven percent suspect that one may be drawing near.
  • Seventy-four percent of attendees find it difficult to find appropriate candidates to fill open positions at their companies, citing “matching skill sets to jobs” as the top challenge.
  • Eighty-three percent of attendees, however, said they are satisfied with the skill sets of recent college graduates.
  • The majority of the attendees find it somewhat difficult to engage their millennial workers, and over two-thirds of the attendees said they are prepared to deal with an increasingly diverse workforce.

In closing, Dave Black, President & CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, discussed ways the organization is working to help resolve the workforce crisis through the Live the Life, a social media campaign to attract and retain young talent in the Capital Region. Dave also noted that the notes and statistics gathered during the event will be analyzed and a list of formal next steps will be determined. Attendees will be made aware of those steps in the near future and will be asked to engage in upcoming activities as we continue to work together as a community to address our region’s workforce crisis.