Jeannette panel seeks to tackle aging workforce, skills shortages
How to replace an aging workforce and bridge the gap between an applicant's skills and an employer's needs will be a challenge for Westmoreland County's businesses and educators in the next decade, a panel of educators, employers and government officials said Monday.
“The aging demographics and the gap in the advanced skills is really critical for Westmoreland County employers in the next five years,” Chad Amond, president of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce, said after a presentation by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development at the Elliott Co. in Jeannette.
About 28 percent of the county's population will be 65 years old within the next five years, Amond said.
The report on the 10-county region's workforce, “Inflection Point: Supply, Demand and the Future of Workforce Development in the Pittsburgh Region,” found that Southwestern Pennsylvania “is facing these demographic challenges first in the country.”
That will result in a shortage of workers, said Laura S. Fisher, senior vice president for workforce and special projects for the Allegheny Conference.
The report anticipates 29,000 retirements annually in the region during the next decade, and an addition of 5,000 jobs each year. But only 26,000 students will graduate from the region's high schools, leaving an estimated shortfall of 8,000 workers, Fisher said.
The other big issue for employers is that constant upgrades in technology are “literally challenging the skills needed by the employers,” Fisher said. “Across the board, employers are looking for higher (level) skills.”
Brian Lapp, vice president of human resources at Elliott Co., said officials there have seen firsthand the impact of the aging demographic. In the past five years, they have increased the workforce by 30 percent to about 1,110 in Southwestern Pennsylvania. At the same time, the average age of the workforce has dropped to the point that about 50 percent of workers have been there fewer than seven years.
There is an ongoing need for skilled workers in mechanical engineering, draftsmen, machinists and welders, Lapp said. “We continue to need these type of skills,” he said.
Businesses will need workers who are more “digitally literate” and possess good customer service skills, Fisher said.
The Advanced Technology Center at the former Sony Corp. plant in East Huntingdon is working to improve the technical skills of the workforce to meet employers' needs, said Patrick Gerrity, vice president of continuing education and workforce and community development at Westmoreland County Community College, which operates the center. It has trained more than 1,000 workers in the past year, Gerrity said.
A short-term solution might involve companies offering retirement-age employees incentives to work longer, full-time or part-time, to help maintain productivity, Amond said.
The longer-term fix will be to attract and retain high school and college students who now graduate and move out of the county because their skills and education don't meet employers' demands, he said.
“We need to better align the students' course of study” with the skills that employers need, he said.
The Westmoreland County Forum for Workforce Development, composed of representatives from school districts and economic development organizations, has discussed potential solutions to these issues for two years, Amond said.
“Now is about time for action,” he said. “I don't think we have a choice.”
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.