Housing, not jobs, is holding back growth in Central Pa.

There's a tug of war between workforce development and housing availability in Cumberland and Dauphin counties.

Economic growth is outpacing affordable housing in Central Pa., experts say. (GIF via YouTube)
This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.
Location is the great boast of south-central Pennsylvania.

Closer proximity to the coast gives the region an economic advantage over western neighbors. With railroads coming together and two major interstates running through the region, Harrisburg has become a distribution hub for the Northeast, drawing in new companies and more people.

Logistics and transportation are the largest growing sectors demanding more and more workers.

“The same warehouse went from 100 to 500 workers,” explained Shaun Donovan, economic development specialist for the Capital Region Economic Development Corporation (CREDC). “We can reach more people in one day on the ground than any other [area] in the country.”

Yet, the region that encompasses Cumberland County and Dauphin County is not without its challenges.

There is a difficult push and pull going on between workforce development and housing availability. Donovan laid out a specific statistic on open positions in the immediate Harrisburg metro area: 20,000 open positions with 10,000 people unemployed.

This statistic represents a tight labor market for employers, but an opportunity for a number of options for workers.

“Overall that ratio is not terrible, considering some of the open positions and those looking for work represent workers changing jobs,” said Donovan. “What the number does show is that we have a growing population which comes into our region to fill the open positions.”

There are 20,000 open jobs in the Harrisburg metro area and 10,000 unemployed workers.

A growing population can enlarge the talent pool and grow opportunities for businesses. But if workforce training is not in line with what companies are looking for, problems start to arise.

“A lot of people are looking for jobs not matching up with what employees are looking for,” said Mary Kuna, economic development manager at Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation.

Kuna said Cumberland is beginning to see success through workforce development initiatives. A major part of the county’s growth has been in creating connections between high schools, colleges and local companies, she said, and making sure their programs are in line with what companies are looking for, especially with regard to trade skills.

“We’re creating that conversation,” said Kuna.

Another challenge facing this region of the Commonwealth is where to house the workforce. Kuna said Cumberland is the fastest growing county in the state, population wise.

We can’t lose focus. There’s a reason that it’s good right now.

“[It’s] very difficult to build houses at the rate people are wanting to move in,” she said, adding that there is a very robust farmland preservation program, particularly in prime soil areas.

The greater the demand for housing, the more difficult it is for young people starting off.

“When housing rises, and demand, it starts to price out lower-income employees,” said Kuna. “There’s not enough affordable housing.”

This is where Donovan said the CREDC is working to encourage appropriate development with urban revitalization efforts and the regionalization of bus systems. Forty-five percent of residents in the metro area don’t own a car, he said, which can factor into their employment as well.

Both Cumberland and Dauphin County have unemployment rates under the state’s 4.7 percent rate, but Kuna said that isn’t a reason to stop monitoring it.

“When things are good, [lawmakers] decide that things are good because it just is,” said Kuna. “We can’t lose focus. There’s a reason that it’s good right now.”

Kuna said this referring to proposals that have been made at the state level to cut economic development spending.

“The region has managed to survive a lot of economic storms by the blessing of where it’s located,” she said. “We won’t stop just because it’s good. We want to be great. We’re not a group that sits in Cumberland County. We always keep pushing forward.”

Series: Grow PA

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