WILKES-BARRE — According to the 2021 Indicators Report compiled by The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, prior to the pandemic, the region faced a tight labor market, with many employers reporting difficulty filling open positions.
“As the regional economy emerges from the pandemic, it is important to have a multifaceted approach to meeting regional training and workforce needs,” said Teri Ooms, executive director at The Institute. “This includes talent attraction and retention.”
Ooms said regional college students cite job prospects as one reason they choose to leave Northeastern Pennsylvania after graduation. However, students who have completed local internships during their studies, and those who are originally from the region, have indicated they are more likely to consider staying in the region.
“The region is well-positioned with a low cost of living and other regional characteristics to attract a newly remote workforce — the region’s relatively low housing costs could be especially helpful, in addition to the close proximity to major metropolitan areas,” Ooms said. “The region could consider implementing talent incentives for remote workers, modeled after programs like Tulsa Remote, the Savannah Technology Workforce Incentive, and Life Works Here (Arkansas). The region, however, must work together on the messaging and strategies — a fragmented approach will not be successful.”
In order to attract remote workforce and retain skilled workers in the region, Ooms said there must be a strong regional marketing campaign that bridges the needs of all stakeholders. Housing, diversity and inclusion, and strong quality of life factors need to be emphasized. Social media is an important avenue for this campaign.
Some states are offering financial incentives to attract remote workers. Any similar effort in Northeastern Pennsylvania would need to consider the competitive landscape with other large and small metropolitan areas around the United States.
Higher education can play a bigger role in workforce development while improving their own outcomes by linking current students with organizations, like Discover NEPA, to learn more about regional quality of life, connecting students with local job opportunities by linking them to CareerLink and regional opportunities via Indeed and other job boards.
Higher Education and businesses need to work together more proactively to ensure higher education meets the workplace needs of employers, but a stronger relationship with more proactive engagement through Career Services and faculty to connect students to local businesses is needed. Even in the midst of COVID, virtual networking with students and employers can occur.
Platforms like Zoom allow for small break-out rooms for more personal interaction. Events could be tailored to disciplines — a finance gathering, medical careers, marketing, etc. Higher education institutions can also use alumni connections to promote the region and the workforce needs of local employers.
Regionally, Ooms said there are opportunities to expand teacher-in-the-workplace programs to better connect K-12 education with employers. Career counseling services in high schools could also be expanded. Such investments could be funded through ARP funds. These programs are vital in the face of the workforce shortage and thereby need to be prioritized for funding and implementation. Hazleton Partners in Education is a great program that could be replicated and scaled.
“Teachers and parents need information about occupation opportunities in the region along with the required education and hard and soft skills needed,” Ooms said. “The Institute will be providing these informational pieces to school districts pending PDE approval of the final product.”
An important strategy for retaining local graduates is increasing local internship opportunities. Even noncredit internships help build a student’s local networks and engage them in the community. There are also opportunities to increase parent and teacher knowledge about regional occupation opportunities and education and skills needed to obtain these jobs.
“Since many internships are unpaid, there is a minimal burden to employers, though paid opportunities, where feasible, may be helpful in maximizing recruiting and retention of talented students,” Ooms said.
Expand work-based learning for students in high school and college (and possibly for out-of-school youth). Help train new, skilled workers and improve labor force participation among young adults. This could also advance equity by making better opportunities available for people from low-income households. Five strategies for policymakers and elected leaders to increase work-based learning include:
• Leverage existing funding and mechanisms – hire interns, incentivize partners and other employers to do the same
• Build WBL infrastructure – facilitate partnerships between schools and employers
• Include WBL in accountability systems (e.g. requirements for state and local funding allocations)
• Expand and align quality summer youth employment programs that match students with local businesses
• Create local funding initiatives
Ooms said the work based learning strategies are a good public private partnership that supports workforce development. Since employers need to adjust their recruiting methods, creating alliances with secondary and post-secondary institutions, will help them develop their workforce, the pipeline, and appropriate education, training, and skills.
Employers can also offer training and advancement opportunities to incumbent employees to upskill them for other jobs within their organization. This can help retain talent, build a skilled workforce, and open opportunities for new workers as incumbent workers advance to new roles. Employers can also work with existing employers and offer training opportunities or part time work for children of existing employees.
Improve access to support services and helpful resources in order to address non-skills barriers to employment. Childcare is particularly important — there is evidence that access to childcare improves labor force participation, productivity, and educational attainment. There is also evidence that access to childcare is an important factor for parents when deciding where to work. I2Ms COVID childcare initiative was a great example to build employee trust and productivity. While it was implemented to deal with COVID school closures, similar programs can be designed for year round implementation.
Ooms said policymakers could also consider offering loan repayment or forgiveness programs to attract and retain graduates in high-demand occupations. Pennsylvania has programs like this for a couple of specific occupations (e.g. primary care practitioners) but could consider expanding them to include other skilled professionals.
“Finally, it will continue to be important to account for the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minorities and women,” Ooms said. “In light of systemic barriers to jobs and training programs in the past, it is important to prioritize equitable solutions.”
Ooms said The Institute uses the word “regional” throughout this study. It is imperative that workforce development be a regional effort. There are a number of fragmented approaches throughout the region spearheaded by a number of organizations, but without a regional implementation effort that integrates the work being undertaken by various stakeholders in primary, secondary, and higher education, job training, job placement, and social services, Northeastern Pennsylvania will not maximize the opportunity to meet employment demands.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.