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Westmoreland leaders form workforce forum to help young people qualify for careers

Joe Napsha
| Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

An educated workforce qualified and willing to take available jobs in the region will be one key to moving Westmoreland County's economy forward, officials said Wednesday.

James Smith, president of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland, told more than 220 business and community leaders at the organization's annual membership meeting at St. Vincent College in Unity that finding companies that want to hire people is easy, but finding qualified people to take those jobs is the hard part.

“It's not just a manufacturing issue. It's a workforce issue” that affects other industries, including health care, Smith said.

Officials in economic development, government and education have formed a workforce forum to try to find how to enable young people to remain in the area to forge a career, rather than moving to states such as Florida, Smith said. One goal is to track students as early as middle school to make them aware of job opportunities.

Latrobe Specialty Metals, a major manufacturer, is very familiar with the difficulties of finding qualified workers, Daniel Hennessy, vice president of strategic operations, said after the program.

It's been challenging to find workers with a specific skill set to fill jobs as mechanics and electricians, Hennessy said. Metallurgical and electrical engineers also are in “very short supply.”

More than the large industrial manufacturers are finding a dearth of qualified workers who want those kinds of jobs, said James Kunkel, executive director of the St. Vincent College Small Business Development Center, which works with small businesses.

“The small and medium-sized companies are experiencing it. I've heard it for the last four or five years,” Kunkel said after the program.

In addition to having skills for manufacturing jobs, prospective employees must pass drug and alcohol tests, particularly those applying for jobs in the oil and gas industry, Kunkel said. The challenge, he said, is pinpointing the solution.

“Is it education, cultural or societal?” Kunkel said.

Chad Amond, president of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce, promoted a “Leadership Westmoreland” program that will start in September to address the need to develop the next generation of leaders. About 17 percent of the county's population is age 65 or older, a percentage expected to grow in the next 15 years, Amond said.

“We don't have an option. We need to develop young leadership in this county,” he said.

In reviewing economic developments, Smith said 2014 was “a breakout year” for the county's economy.

“Last year, the dams broke loose. People starting hiring,” Smith said, noting that about $10 million in investment created or retained 6,600 jobs.

Since it was “a very busy year” in terms of the number of projects in the pipeline, the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. anticipates the upswing will continue this year, said Jason Rigone, executive director of the agency.

County businesses expanded by more than 500,000 square feet last year, Rigone said. In the county-owned industrial park system, 67.4 acres in five parks were either sold or under option for sale last year.

Rigone cited LeedsWorld, a supplier of high-quality promotional products that has grown to occupy more than 500,000 square feet and employ 900 people at the Westmoreland Research & Business Park in Upper Burrell. When it moved to the park in July 1997, it occupied just 100,000 square feet and had 85 employees, he said.

Another success story is Cenveo Corp., an envelope manufacturer that moved into the RIDC Westmoreland facility, the former Sony Technology Center near New Stanton, Rigone said. It occupies almost 303,000 square feet of space at the former television assembly plant.

About 43 percent of that industrial park's space is leased, providing more than 900 jobs, Rigone said. The long-term goal is 2,000 jobs.

“Those are the types of things we live for in economic development,” Smith said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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