Workforce to shrink as baby boomers retire, birth rates fall
It's a national dilemma: Birth rates rose slightly in 2014 but are not high enough to sustain population levels, just as employers brace for the largest generation ever to retire in droves.
The oldest of 75 million baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — turn 69 this year.
The challenge is heightened in Western Pennsylvania, home to some of the oldest counties in the nation and still rebounding from population losses triggered by the domestic steel industry's demise in the 1980s. Experts say the energy and manufacturing sectors are most in danger of running out of qualified workers.
“We're impending upon a crisis here,” said Darby Copeland, executive director of Parkway West Career & Technology Center in Oakdale, which coordinates with employers to design a curriculum for high schoolers in 12 fields, including welding, information technology and auto body repair.
In the Greater Pittsburgh region, there are 144,000 more people 45 to 65 than those 25 to 44, according to projections by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. About 106,000 of those older residents worked in 2014, which means as they age out of their working years, the region could lose about 8 percent of its 1.2 million-member workforce.
“If we're focused and we work together, we should be able to close that gap,” said Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer for Allegheny Conference, a nonprofit that aims to accelerate regional growth and improvements.
“In fact, what's a challenge for employers is a real opportunity for workers.”
Replenishing the graying workforce requires expediting the pace of hires by more than 5,000 annually for 20 years, Flanagan said.
The region must prepare young people and address factors stunting growth, experts say, including shortages of foreign-born workers and few young adults relocating to Western Pennsylvania.
“It's not an ‘if' or ‘when' or ‘shall we?' The reality is that we can't grow enough people internally to meet workforce needs over the long term,” said Laura Fisher, senior vice president at Allegheny Conference. “We have to provide really strong pathways to prepare people already here, but we've got to get more people wanting to move here.”
Outpaced by others
With about 2.36 million people, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area ranked 23rd in the nation in 2014, above the Portland region and below Baltimore, Denver and Charlotte.
If trends hold, Pittsburgh will fall to No. 29 by 2025 and No. 34 by 2042, likely surpassed by Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City; Nashville; San Antonio; Austin; and Indianapolis.
Between 2000 and 2010, while the population climbed by 9.7 percent, Pennsylvania grew by 3.4 percent to 12.7 million — and most Western Pennsylvania counties shrank. Washington County, bolstered by Marcellus shale gas activity, grew by 2.4 percent.
To be sure, pockets of the region are thriving. Development is booming in Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle and up-and-coming neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville and East Liberty, which is attracting startups and tech giants looking to expand.
“The quality of life in Pittsburgh is a real asset for the region, and it makes it a very easy sell in talking to people from outside the Pittsburgh area. It's got amazing amenities, great universities, great cultural institutions, great restaurants, great bike trails,” said Kamal Nigam, co-director of Google Pittsburgh, which employs more than 400 and will open another campus in East Liberty in 2016.
Dilapidated buildings, demolition backlogs, transportation pitfalls, shuttered storefronts and high poverty rates plague other parts of the city such as Sheraden and Homewood, as well as Ambridge in Beaver County, Butler in Butler County and many Monongahela River valley towns once home to mills.
“There's no question, it's on our minds. There are people and places that have been left behind, older towns that were cut off from economic activity,” Flanagan said.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has deemed attracting immigrants a priority.
In 1970, immigrants made up 4.2 percent of the Pittsburgh region — not far off the nearly 5 percent of foreign-born residents nationwide, census data show.
By 2014, Pittsburgh's foreign-born population fell to 3.2 percent, while the national share rose to 12.7 percent.
Google hires people “right out of school, but we also hire many people who are relocating within the country, as well as internationally,” Nigam said. “On a national scale, Google is worried about not having enough strong technical workers.”
In other parts of the country, a strong influx of immigrants contributes to higher birth rates, said Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at Pew Research Center.
Pennsylvania ranks fourth-highest of 50 states by percentage of the population 65 and older, behind Florida, West Virginia and Maine, census data show.
Investing in training
Key to meeting workforce needs is training youths for growing industries. Institutions such as the Community College of Allegheny County are prepared to increase course offerings to help, said Ron Logreco, assistant dean of the college's West Hills Center.
For each workforce track, the college convenes an advisory group of as many as 40 employers.
“They tell us what they're lacking and what their needs are for the next five years, and we listen and we respond,” Logreco said.
Employers are stepping up, too. Chevron Corp. started its Appalachia Partnership Initiative to train workers in 27 counties in Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio.
“We are committed to addressing the region's needs, and our support goes far beyond just writing a check,” Chevron spokeswoman Brenda Cosola said.
The new Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District is making space for job training programs.
“Change is coming to Pittsburgh,” said Josh Hickman of Hickman Geological Consulting LLC, who founded Young Energy Professionals to connect 14,000 workers. “I see us exporting our technology from this region to other parts of the U.S. and other parts of the world.”
The birth rate is climbing nationally and in Pennsylvania for the first time since 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Pennsylvania moms gave birth to about 141,200 babies in 2014, a 1.1 percent increase from the previous year.
People are putting off having children, but more educated, older women are having babies. And more seniors are working past 65.
Major projects could draw construction and permanent jobs to the region, including a proposed Shell petrochemical plant in Beaver County, the Southern Beltway connecting Route 22 to Interstate 79, and Sunoco's $2.5 billion Mariner East 2 pipeline across southern Pennsylvania.
“If they've got the right skills, they will be in demand. It's a reason to stay and a reason to come here,” Flanagan said.
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.