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Job training critical to growing county economy

Despite national fears, upward financial mobility in Cumberland County isn’t entirely unavailable. It’s just that many people, local experts say, aren’t looking in the right place.

The days in which a four-year liberal arts degree was a guaranteed ticket to success may very well be gone. But more and more often, vocational and technical skills are taking its place in line.

“Working with our vo-tech programs to mirror what employers are looking for seems to be a big shift in the education community,” said Jonathan Bowser, Chief Executive Officer of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation.

“A big piece is the mindset of the parents,” Bowser said. “A lot of people still have the mindset of college prep, that their kid has to go to a four-year institution and graduate in a field that everyone is accustomed to thinking is a good job.”

Such jobs — doctors, lawyer, and other professions of traditional high regard — aren’t’ easy to come by in Cumberland County. But with the logistics industry, and even healthcare, becoming more technology-driven, the demand for skilled tradesmen (or women) is booming to an extent that some would say is unprecedented.

“I would say it has reached a critical point,” said Jim Carchidi, President of JFC Staffing, a job placement firm that serves Central Pennsylvania.

“We call them the ‘golden collar’ jobs,” Carchidi said. “These are the positions that don’t require a four-year degree, but require extensive practical training past high school. Positions that need apprenticeships — electricians, mechanical technicians, things like that. These are skilled tradesmen and they are very hard to find.”

It’s not for lack of people, however — from 2003 to 2012, Cumberland County saw 2 percent growth in the number of jobs, but 9 percent total population growth, according to the US Census. Unemployment remains low, under 4 percent.

The issue, rather, is the availability of training for this excess population to learn how to do the jobs that are in such high demand.

However, most national-level employers have crunched their numbers to come in and hire ready-to-work employees, Carchidi said. Paying for training, something that used to be standard in American industry decades ago, no longer meets corporate bottom lines.

“There aren’t ample opportunities unless the companies take it upon themselves,” Carchidi said. “The employers are starting to take it on themselves to train but it’s far from where it needs to be.”

Taking full advantage of the demand for skilled jobs is also dependent on the mindset of employees themselves. While the skilled labor demand in logistics and warehousing is on the rise, many potential employees may not readily identify such work as a long-term prospect.

“Right now we’re seeing that ‘revolving door’ perspective with the distribution centers,” Bowser said. “Folks aren’t looking at it as a career, they’re looking at it as a job, and if someone can pay a quarter more, then they’ll go elsewhere. We’re in the early stage of trying to look at how to make it less a job and more of a career path.”

Acclimating to technology is also a major factor.

“A lot of these places are going more robotic,” Bowser continued. “The robots are replacing people, but you still need people to fix the robots or operate the robots … it’s changing the skill set and will create some higher paying jobs, and it’s changing the culture to where you may start today relatively low, but if you stay in and learn the job then you’ll move up quickly.”

This article can be found in the January Cumberland Valley Business Journal and online here.

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