A panel of experts came before two congressmen in Bristol Township Monday to discuss workforce development and challenges faced.
Throughout the House of Representatives Small Business Committee field hearing overseen by Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick and Philadelphia Democratic Congressman Dwight Evans at Boilermakers Local 13’s hall on New Falls Road, representatives from labor, business, and Bucks County Community College’s workforce development program discussed challenges and the current environment in the hiring market.
The committee was looking to the labor, business, and education communities to try to close the skills gap that is separating Americans from skilled labor jobs that pay well and don’t always require a college degree. Fitzpatrick said the industry most impacted by the skills gap is Pennsylvania’s 15,000-company strong manufacturing industry.
Some major obstacles that the panel of experts testified are faced by companies that employ skilled laborers are related to the so-called “soft skills,” drugs, transportation and the stigma around the trades.
The panel said soft skills – dependability, interpersonal skills, punctuality, communication, and work ethic – are often lacking with younger members of the workforce applying or working in skilled labor fields.
Patrick Eidling, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO that represents more than 100 local labor unions, said there may be various causes for the soft skills gap but manufacturers often note the issue. They stated the problem makes it harder to find workers who are reliable and fit in at their businesses.
The problem has been noted in surveys and in conversation with Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry members. He said companies often note they are “extremely frustrated” by the problem, said Alex Halper, the business advocacy group’s government affairs director.
“Employers across all industry sectors describe difficulty recruiting applicants that exhibit sufficient ability to think logically, work collaboratively with others, behave properly, and effectively communicate,” Halper testified.
He further added that youth employment and summer jobs can help teens learn the soft skills employers look for as they grow up.
Eidling raised concerns over “hard skills” that employers in the skilled trades look for when pouring over applications.
“One of my biggest concerns is the level of proficiency in math and reading our students are graduating with,” he said. “We need to increase education funding for these programs to better prepare our students for graduation.
Eidling called for more support of schools and funding for Pell grants for training programs.
Criminal justice system reform and drugs have also become a challenge that can leave good-paying jobs unfilled.
The interim director of Bucks County Community College’s Center for Workforce Development, Susan Herring, said applicants to the various programs that train close to 2,800 workers locally every year often see applicants who face hurdles related to past criminal convictions or drugs.
All the panel members who testified said businesses often see applicants self-remove themselves from contention after learning they have to undergo a drug test. In some cases, those who remove themselves are people with criminal backgrounds who may have recently smoked marijuana, which is being decriminalized in portions of the nation.
Workers with opioid addictions can easily cause problems at job sites and have also become a worry for employers.
Eidling said there is a concern if employees are under the influence when working in elevated places or with potentially dangerous equipment.
Many times, Eidling said, those who have drug issues and criminal convictions just want to work to improve their situation.
Herring said one “huge” issue is transportation for skilled workers who have lost their licenses due to DUI. With a limited number of public transportation options, those students looking to get training in the trades can be left out.
Fitzpatrick stated during the hearing that there are six million unfilled positions in the labor market and not enough skilled laborers to fill them.
Education and training in the skilled trades is often overlooked as parents instill the message that they need a college degree, Eidling said.
At Bucks County Community College’s Center for Workforce Development, the program has grown in recent years from their initial partnership with 20 manufacturers to now having more than 70 spread across Bucks and Montgomery counties. The program has trained numerous workers for various jobs and has a 92 percent fill rate with many jobs paying between $40,000 and $50,000 within the first few years, Eidling said.
The Center for Workforce Development works with the Bucks County Workforce Development Board and PA Careerlink to train workers and underemployed individuals for various jobs.
In Bucks County, nearly 3,000 new advanced manufacturing jobs are expected to open up within the next 10 years. On top of that, the retirements of baby-boomers will make it important that the next workforce is well trained, Eidling said.
Many parents, Eidling said, have a stigma against trade.
“I wanted my kids to be better off than me,” he said.
However, things have changed and college-educated students can be saddled with debt and have trouble finding work, while skilled laborers are in demand.
Eidling suggested that schools do a better job of teaching students about the trades and not just college. He said skilled labor jobs still require math, reading, and the sciences.
“The cruelest thing we can do to our kids is pressure them to go to a four-year university and graduate with mountains of debt, with bleak job prospects,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick and Evans said they will continue to work to see what role the government could have with filling the skills gap.
Fitzpatrick has supported legislation to allow employers to file for a tax credit of up to $5,000 for certain training of new employees and also supported grants to help states pay for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs.