Franklin County’s economy is experiencing nearly unprecedented growth due in large part to our strategic location that is within a one-day drive of 50 percent of the North American population and our workforce, which is prized among employers large and small. Our growth has been such that our statistically calculated unemployment rate is 4 percent, which is a rate considered by most economists to represent full employment.
While our reported unemployment rate is very favorable, it is misleading. Many of our employers have vacant positions of which they cannot fill simply because there are not enough qualified applicants. In a recent Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry survey, more than half — 52 percent — said it is very difficult, at best, to recruit qualified job candidates, and 56 percent believe it will get worse by 2021. Only 21 percent — one in five — give the current labor force marks for job readiness of “excellent” or “good.” Also, in that survey, more than nine employers in 10 said they look for verbal communication, reading comprehension, critical thinking, and basic math skills in their job applicants.
So, how do we close the skills gap? In the short term, it is incumbent on us to strengthen the relationship between our employers and our educational institutions to include secondary, post-secondary and our trade schools, especially the Franklin County Career and Technology Center and the newly opened Welding Training Center. Our high-schoolers and their parents need to be better informed of the family-sustaining career opportunities being offered by world-class employers right here in Franklin County. Moreover, they need to know of the post-secondary opportunities being offered at Wilson College, Penn State University Mont Alto and Shippensburg University. To that point, how many employers and current students know that Shippensburg University offers Bachelor of Science degrees in computer and software engineering as well as electrical, mechanical and civil engineering?
The next couple of years will require creative solutions in addressing the labor needs, but as we look to our future, the long-term solution is not as creative, it simply requires a commitment and investment in early childhood education. We need to be better in providing access to quality pre-K education for all eligible preschool aged children. Currently, 64 percent of eligible pre-school aged children in Pennsylvania are unable to access high-quality, publicly funded pre-K due to limited state funding. Additionally, Pennsylvania is home to the widest per-pupil spending gap in the nation between wealthy and poor school districts. This shortchanges far too many schools leading to larger classes, less personalized instruction, insufficient or outdated equipment, and cuts in academic offerings like career and technical education.
A skills gap among our workforce threatens our future economy, both here in Franklin County and across the commonwealth. Boosting access to high quality pre-K and investing more long-term state funding through Pennsylvania’s fair education funding formula will address these inequities and help to close the skills gap ensuring a brighter economic future for all.
L. Michael Ross is the president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp.