Economics / Jobs

Here’s what employers in Allegheny County can do now to prevent a future workforce crisis

Jobs are on the rise, but unemployment rates are steady. The disconnect could have something to do with outdated hiring practices.

There's a disconnect between employers and potential talent. (Photo by Flickr user Kevin Thomas, used under a Creative Commons license)
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A common lament among companies in southwestern Pennsylvania is that they can’t find workers with the right skill sets for the jobs they need to fill.

At present, the Pittsburgh metro area’s unemployment rate remains relatively low, with the latest figures showing the six-county region at 5.1 percent unemployment for the month of March. That’s down from the month prior, but slightly above the national average of 4.5 percent.

There’s concern among economic development organizations such as Allegheny Conference that this region will have a shortfall of workers over the next decade. The Conference did a deep dive into the future of Pittsburgh’s workforce last spring in Inflection Point, a regional employment report that concluded the area is not prepared for changes to come.

Combine the large percentage of baby boomers hitting retirement age, add (or subtract) the dwindling influx of new residents to Pittsburgh with the occupational changes that are coming due to technology, and the problem becomes clear: The report predicted a shortfall of 80,000 workers over the next decade if the region doesn’t collectively adapt.

A big part of that adaptation is employers realizing that their current hiring practices aren’t going to cut it, said Linda Topoleski, Vice President of Workforce Operations and Programs at Allegheny Conference.

Topoleski offered the example of administrative assistant positions, entry-level jobs that don’t necessarily require 3 to 5 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree. Still, she said, those requirements appear in the standard admin job description more often than not.

“Looking at these same positions in other markets, they don’t have that high a percentage of requests for 3 to 5 years of experience,” Topoleski said.

Current hiring practices aren’t going to cut it.

The solution is simple: Hiring managers need to be more cognizant of what their company needs versus what the company may think it needs based on past practices.

Stefani Pashman, CEO of Pittsburgh workforce agency Partner 4 Work (formerly the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board) agreed.

“We need to convince larger employers that this is a way in. There’s a huge disconnect here and we have to rethink our processes, establish more flexibility in our hiring and HR practices,” she said. “We are not a growing population, but we are growing jobs.”

Pashman added that one thing unique to Pittsburgh is that we can see what the next wave of hiring is going to require. “We’re sitting on this precipice and we see what’s coming, with autonomous vehicles and robotics,” she said.

Topoleski said hiring in general remains one of the most inefficient industries. Figuring out ways to improve the matching process is critical.

“We can put Pittsburgh on the leading edge of this if we harness the information we have about what isn’t working,” she said. “This is a wake-up call for employers that none of them can solve this problem individually. We have to consider: Are we training for the right skill sets? Will these jobs be in demand?”

A better understanding of workers is key as well, Pashman added.

“There wasn’t a lot of research on job seeker success. We know what employers want, the question is how do we make sure we’re aware of who that person is before we put them in a training program? Why does one person succeed in job training and another doesn’t?”

A big part of the challenge is connecting workers with appropriate jobs.

We are not a growing population, but we are growing jobs.

“You hear it from a lot of Uber drivers in Pittsburgh; they’ve been laid off, they’re piecing together jobs and most of them are underemployed,” said Pashman.

Ultimately, there’s a disconnect between employers and talent: A lot of underemployed citizens don’t know where to find jobs outside their immediate skill set (a laid-off manufacturing plant employee, for instance), and employers don’t necessarily know how to reach them.

Topoleski said the Conference has been working with some of the larger employers in the region to identify best practices based on criteria laid out in its Inflection Point report, and there are currently plans in place to publish an update later this year.

“This is a problem that is going to become more acute in the next five to 10 years,” Topoleski said. “It’s true across the board. But we’re trying to face the challenge ahead of everyone else.”

Series: Grow PA

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