The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Business

November 1, 2013

Oh-Penn creating a Pathway to a better area workforce

WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA, EASTERN OHIO — Like a manufacturer might produce steel pipes, two local organizations have joined hands to craft a strategy to develop a regional workforce ready for employment.

On Thursday the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition and the Manufacturing Industry Partnership of Lawrence and Mercer Counties announced they formed the Oh-Penn Manufacturing Collaborative to provide a unified front for their workforce efforts.

Oh-Penn is the first officially-designated interstate region in the country. Composed of Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Lawrence and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania, the Oh-Penn Interstate Region covers three Workforce Investment areas with a population of 764,722 people.

The concept created, Pathways to Competitiveness Training Resources, is designed to upgrade workers’ talents a create a workforce suited to the needs of local manufacturers.

At a meeting attended Thursday by more than 100 employers, schools and development groups at Park Inn by Radisson in Shenango Township, Oh-Penn began to form the strategy to meet that goal.    

A critical part of that strategy was listening to survey results conducted among regional manufacturers by Educational Data Systems Inc., a Detroit-based consulting company which has a Pittsburgh office.

Tops among the needs for many manufacturers is a workforce that has good basic math and English skills. Those traits are desired in employees ranging from mechanics to electricians, said Ken Mall, managing director and workforce consulting for EDSI who presented the findings.

“Nowhere does it say here the most important thing wanted in a mechanic is to have basic mechanic skills,’’ Mall said.

Welders are highly sought here, Mall said, but that isn’t unusual.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and welding has been at the top of the charts in all the surveys I’ve seen,’’ he said.

One point of the survey that caught the eye of many in the audience was that the survey found 41 percent of area manufacturers said having an employee certified or credentialed in a skill was not needed.

But that doesn’t mean employers are saying higher skills are unwanted, Mall said.

“It’s more indicative of where employers place values today,’’ he said. “A high school diploma is not enough. There’s a credentialing process that workers need that goes beyond a high school diploma.’’

Although a number of employers lament a lack of seasoned, well-trained workers, they need to be realistic when it comes to pay versus experience, Mall said. Salary demands within a certain field can vary greatly. An electrical maintenance worker, for example, who is just starting out may have to settle for $7.25 an hour while the top-tier employee with loads of experience doing more sophisticated work can command nearly a $40-an-hour wage.

A local trend mirroring the national scene is the days of huge manufacturing plants with thousands of employees are becoming more rare, he said. Boutique manufacturers serving a specific niche are now the rage.

Mall knows this very well as he once worked for the sprawling General Motors Corp.’s Buick plant in Flint, Mich.

“The plant was closed and all that’s left there now is an empty field,’’ he said.

In the survey of area manufacturers EIDS found 70 percent of them are shops with between five to 10 employees. A strategy must be found in helping those employers – a strategy which often is far different from a bigger manufacturer.

“You have to see how do these manufacturers compete, and how do you help them,’’ Mall said.

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