Like most counties across Pennsylvania, Westmoreland is struggling to solve for a particularly toxic combination of workforce issues: An aging population and the flight of skilled workers.
The result is a concerning number of unfilled jobs among major employers, and a troubling trend: When your young, educated workers leave for opportunities elsewhere, your anchor industries soon follow.
In Westmoreland, where the economy is driven primarily by manufacturing, energy and healthcare, the writing is on the wall.
The Sony plant shuttered in 2010, followed by the Otis Spunkermeyer plant in 2014. A decline in mining and logging jobs last summer bumped the county’s unemployment rate up from 5.4 percent to 6.3 percent. A third of the employees at Excela Health, the county’s largest employer and medical provider, are 55 or older.
“We’re one of the oldest populations in the Commonwealth. Our median age is 46-47. Nationwide, it’s 36,” said Chad Amond, president of the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce. “Skilled workforce is important to every community, but it’s a game-changer for us. It could really have a huge negative impact.”
Westmoreland’s growing workforce crisis was at the top of Amond’s mind when he met with Economic Growth Connection President Jim Smith and Advanced Technology Center Dean Frank Kordalski for breakfast at the Greensburg Denny’s off Route 30 back in 2014.
Their discussion eventually led to action, and soon, a working group was formed to probe solutions for the county’s growing workforce crisis.
That working group evolved into what is now the Westmoreland County Forum for Workforce Development, a cross-sector initiative that aims to build a pipeline of talent between schools and major employers by getting vocational high school students into certificate programs with local colleges and placing them directly in jobs with partner companies.
It’s all part of the Forum’s three-pronged action plan:
- Implement career exploration programs for high school students
- Provide opportunities for those students to earn associate’s degrees or certifications in the industries they want to find careers in
- Facilitate job placement with local employers
“The mistake we’ve been making here and across the country is, we’re forcing too many kids to go into a four-year degree thinking college will solve all problems,” said Amond. “You need to make sure you’re going for the right reasons.”
All the right players are at the Forum’s table: 14 of the county’s 17 school districts, colleges and universities such as Westmoreland County Community College and Penn State, economic development organizations, county government and major regional employers.
Each stakeholder has contributed $5,000 to the group. The Forum’s operating budget for the next three years totals around $150,000.
“That’s a big deal when you’re looking at school districts that are pinching pennies pretty tightly,” said Amond.
The remaining three school districts are expected to join up once the Forum starts producing results, said Forum chairman and Franklin Regional schools superintendent Gennaro Piraino, Jr.
“Many school districts are cutting back staff,” Piraino said. “To commit money to something in a development state is a risk.”
"The reality is that in the long-term, this has monumental impact on our region. Short-term, it changes how we all do business. It removes the silos and really opens us all up to a new spirit of collaboration that may not have existed prior."
As is often the case with coalition-building, getting stakeholders on the same page has been the Forum’s biggest challenge. It took two years to get stakeholders on board with the Forum’s three-pronged action plan. The existential nature of Westmoreland’s workforce crisis, though, made getting on board with a shared vision for economic growth an easier sell.
“Every district has its strengths and weaknesses,” said Amond. “You need to leave the competition on the field Friday night. Monday through Friday afternoon, we need to work in collaboration with one another.”
Breaking down the Forum into three separate (but interdependent) task forces has made collaboration easier. Each task force is chaired by one person from K-12, one of the three economic development corporations and one business or university representative.
“These are influential people. I’ve seen them check their egos at the door,” said Piraino. “The reality is that in the long-term, this has monumental impact on our region. Short-term, it changes how we all do business. It removes the silos and really opens us all up to a new spirit of collaboration that may not have existed prior.”
Up until this point, the Forum has been running on volunteer power. Hiring an employee to facilitate programming, said Amond, is on the near horizon, thanks to a recent grant from FirstEnergy Corp.
That’s one job created out of what the Forum hopes will be a great many more in the near future.
“The idea is to make the region and county a fantastic place to live, work and play,” said Piraino. “Work has to be a part of that if our students are going to stay here and be happy here.”