Quintin Bullock's Viewpoint: A bold plan to address the region's workforce shortage

Article by: Pittsburgh Business Times

The original article was published in the Pittsburgh Business Times.Bullock PBT

We’ve all seen the statistics, well-documented in the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s “Inflection Point” study: a workforce shortage of 80,000 by the year 2025 and a regional economy that, for all its exciting improvements in recent years, is still running behind that of other regions we compete with for both new and existing business.

This shortage of skilled workers threatens to stall our growth. For fast-growing companies, proximity to talent is crucial. If they can't find it here, they will locate somewhere else.

The low unemployment rate in Allegheny County might lead one to the conclusion that the only solution for our looming workforce gap is to attract more talented people to our region and to convince young people who have come here to attend our great colleges and universities to stay here after graduation. Certainly, those avenues are important to pursue, but there is another path we should explore as well.

There are communities around our region that have not shared in the economic boom. In these communities, too many adults have given up looking for jobs, and too many young people leave school unprepared for the workforce. If we can create better pipelines connecting these individuals with job opportunities, training them to be successful and supporting their efforts along the way, we will be able to fill a large portion of the gap -providing hope and opportunity and turning around communities at risk.

This is a challenge that requires the participation of our business leaders, educational institutions, community organizations and regional foundations. We need to collaborate on a bold plan to transform an asset with tremendous potential - the underutilized, underemployed residents of underserved communities - into fully functioning participants in our economic success.

At the Community College of Allegheny County, we've had great success creating and working with industry advisory committees and with individual companies. Whether it's training welders for high-demand jobs, powerline workers for Duquesne Light Co., nurses and allied health professionals for hospitals or workers specializing in artificial intelligence and robotics for the tech industry, these and many other partnerships enable us to develop curricula that are preparing students for real-world jobs.

There are several steps we need to take as a region to create a productive and effective job pipeline:

1. Business leaders in high-demand industries should create their own working groups with their peers at other companies to identify emerging trends and job needs, and map out the skills required by future employees. Representatives of these companies need to work collaboratively with two- and four-year colleges and universities to create programs designed to train skilled workers who are ready to be hired.

2. As a region, we need to identify new partnership opportunities and secure new grants that support the collaborative development of programs that cross county lines.

3. Community-based organizations need to play an active role in providing input on the structure of job-training programs by communicating with local residents and mobilizing support when solid, credible programs are created. 

4. The great philanthropic foundations that support so many civic activities in the region need to be involved as well. The best training program is of no value to someone who can't get to it or who can't arrange child care during the hours a course is in session. Funding for wrap-around support services that enable residents of underserved communities to access these types of programs would be an investment that could yield extraordinary returns.

A bold initiative as outlined above requires significant effort and participation. It will require time and perseverance, but first, it requires us to be open to new ways of thinking. We need to convene a small group of organizations and companies that can play a leadership role in developing a tangible blueprint for moving forward. I would welcome hearing from representatives of any of the sectors I've mentioned here who wish to join me in building a new model for addressing at least a portion of our workforce needs - and at the same time, realizing the untapped potential of so many of our citizens.

Quintin Bullock is president of the Community College of Allegheny County.

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