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Aging workforce may leave manufacturing skills shortage

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 10:20 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania laborers rank among the best-skilled technical workforces in the country, giving the region a clear upper hand for its manufacturing resurgence.

But those workers are graying.

“Too many of them are over 50,” said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “We're going to have to reach out to people who have these skills and try to get them to move here.”

About 25 percent of manufacturing workers in the Pittsburgh area are at least 55 years old, and hundreds of others are older than 45, according to a September 2012 report from Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board. Only 5 percent are younger than 25 — the smallest proportion of young workers among all sectors in the regional economy.

Analysts say the trend, if left unchanged, could limit economic growth within a decade as skilled workers retire and demand for their work keeps climbing.

Manufacturers strain to fill some jobs for highly trained technicians, even at pay rates well above regional averages, according to business operators.

“It's not just that there are not enough young people interested in manufacturing. There simply are not enough young people interested in all kinds of careers,” said Vera Krofcheck, research director at the workforce investment board, who cited regional population trends.

She said discouragement from older generations stung by layoffs, as well as a general shift toward college education, de-emphasized manufacturing jobs among young adults.

“You really don't find people who have directly applicable skills very often,” said Robert Visalli, CEO of Kerotest Manufacturing Corp. in Hazelwood.

The valve maker doesn't mind training newcomers and has been able to fill its ranks. If that changes for local companies, though, they could struggle to meet delivery timetables and lose sales, Visalli said.

“It's all about having people with technical skills who can make processes and products better. That's fundamentally different from the historic needs for people who can lift heavy things and brute force,” said Jim Quasey, a vice president at Industrial Scientific Corp. in Oakdale. “Now it's more about how we can enable an individual's knowledge and technical skills.”

A cross-section of industry and government groups press the message. Nearly a dozen technical schools are adopting a key industry certification, and a Keystone Works state program links employers with the unemployed, under Gov. Tom Corbett's Manufacturing Advisory Council.

In Western Pennsylvania, the workforce investment board collaborates with Carnegie Mellon University, the AFL-CIO and other partners to advance training for and awareness of the manufacturing sector. The board offers a manufacturing-oriented scholarship, among other enticements.

“We've got to do a better job, as a community, to communicate to young people and their parents” the value of manufacturing, Flanagan said. “The real dire circumstance is still five to seven years out.”

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