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Pandemic highlights the value of workforce development networks

When Maria Joseph Manor continuing care facility in Danville needed hand sanitizer, the hair care products company Function of Beauty in Catawissa came through with 100 bottles. When Geisinger Medical needed face shields for its doctors and nurses, DiamondBack Truck Covers in Phillipsburg stepped up.

And when teachers in seven school districts needed face masks to safely hand out school lunches, doctors and nurses in the region volunteered on their precious time off to get them made.

The rapid response by manufacturers and members of the central Pennsylvania community to the needs of health care providers and others on the frontlines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic did not happen by accident. Partnerships forged in recent years among employers, health care providers, schools and government entities have proved invaluable during the crisis.

Making connections and developing relationships across industries and between public, non-profit, and the private sectors is one of the primary goals of the state’s 22 workforce development boards, among them the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Corp., which covers nine counties in the region.

All 22 local boards are members of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association and have been collectively discussing and acting to serve employers across the Commonwealth in dealing with and recovering from the COVID-19-pandemic.

In late March, shortly after COVID-19 first turned up in Pennsylvania, a group of 70 central Pennsylvania manufacturers was preparing for its regular quarterly meeting. Recognizing the crisis at their doorstep, the leaders of the group, called the “MADE in Central PA Manufacturing Partnership” scrapped their original agenda and members turned their focus to how they could address COVID-19 needs in their region and beyond.

Tom Kapelewski, an engineer with SEKISUI-KYDEX plastics in Bloomsburg who served as the point person, described the mobilization as a “who needs what, who can supply what” situation. His own firm, which already was making plastic sheets for the medical device industry, was able to retool and make sheets specifically for hospital ventilators.

Soon the phone calls, emails and exchanges on a shared communications tool started in earnest and Kapelewski began to build a spread sheet to identify the most immediate needs for health care providers.

Within days more than 20 manufacturers had offered to help and soon hand sanitizer, face masks and face shields were being delivered to health care facilities, helping protect staff and patients and keeping industry employees on the job.

Function of Beauty is based in New York City but has a plant in Columbia County. It has so far distributed 30,000 bottles of hand sanitizer at no cost, primarily to first responders and health care workers in the region.

As the company’s chief marketing officer, Lorna Sommerville, put it: “During times like this we think it’s important that everyone leans in and does what they can to help. We had the know how and the facilities to meet the need and so there really wasn’t much discussion about it beyond how we could make it happen as quickly as possible.”

At the same time, through a collaboration with Bucknell University and several high schools, students and faculty were hard at work using 3-D printers to make face shields for hospital staff members. Even as the region mobilized to fight a deadly disease, some companies were facing tough decisions about workforce reductions and the loss of government funding for programs and projects already in the pipeline.

PMF Industries, a precision metal forming company in Williamsport that serves aerospace, the food industry and the military, was expecting to receive state funds for an apprenticeship program to start this summer when the funding was abruptly rerouted to meet COVID needs. The three-year program is designed to address the skills gap in manufacturing jobs and transition the next generation of workers into family-sustaining jobs as older workers reach retirement age.

Such demand-driving initiatives are at the heart collaborations like the MADE in Central PA Manufacturing Partnership, which was convened by the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Corp. and is what is known as an “industry sector partnership,” part of a national movement seeking to better link employers in similar and supply-chained sectors, and connect the industry with regional talent in high schools and colleges to develop job training, work experiences and internships to help young people envision their career path while still in school.

Cultivating future workers may be more critical now than it was even six months ago when the region was experiencing a workforce shortage.

The pandemic struck just as the region was coming off a year that included a recent record low unemployment rate of 3.9 percent. Since March, the unemployment rate spiked to 14.9 percent.

Erica Mulberger, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Workforce Development Corp. and host of the MADE in Central PA Manufacturing Partnership, says the region was “flipped upside down” by COVID, going from a job seekers market to employers’ market overnight.

She says it will be hard to get a handle on the true economic picture until counties “go green” and resume a tenure of operations. Some companies that closed expect to bring back 100 percent of their workforce, while others will reopen but with smaller numbers of workers given decreased demand and requirements for social distancing.

One thing is clear — when employers partner, engage and invest in their workforce, economic vitality can be responsive and thrive. Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association members like the corporation stand ready to broker and strengthen employer engagement in their recovery process. The lasting positive impact for the region may well be measured in the networks among the corporation, industry, schools, non-profits and government entities that predated the pandemic, were made stronger by it and will better position the region to respond to the challenges of the future.

Carrie Anne Amann is executive director of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association.

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