While Lehigh Valley boasts a deep pool of talent filled primarily by the half dozen regional colleges and universities, job growth and low unemployment have caused higher education and the private sector to focus more intently on skills gaps in the workforce. Over the past five years, the region has added 24,400 new jobs and is projected to add about 22,000 additional jobs over the next five years.
“With a tighter job market and low unemployment rate, job candidates who have the skills, education, and training are getting jobs quickly in high demand occupations such as registered nurses, CDL, machining, electromechanical, industrial maintenance and logistics, to name a few,” says Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board (LVWDB).
The LVWDB partnered in the formation of the Education and Talent Supply Council, a recommended strategy in a comprehensive workforce and economic development study by consultant Oxford Economics that was jointly commissioned by the LVWDB and Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.
The council brings together the region’s secondary and higher educational institutions, economic development and workforce development organizations, and industry leaders to help identify workforce needs and ensure the pipeline of talent flows to those high-demand jobs.
The council’s work meshes with the LVWDB’s mission of ensuring a workforce system that aligns with economic development, education and the community and focuses on targeted industry sectors and high-priority occupations.
“We work every day with our economic development partners to ensure we are retooling and retraining Lehigh Valley’s workforce to meet the changing skill requirements of employers,” Dischinat says.
Dischinat says the LVWDB also works with local school systems to increase awareness among students, teachers, and guidance counselors of careers in high-demand industry sectors and engages local employers at the school level.
“We’re working to ensure that industry steps into education so that the pipeline of workers is meeting industry’s current and projected needs,” she says.
Demand and Supply
Educational institutions such as Cedar Crest College, DeSales University, Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Moravian College and Muhlenberg College are also drivers in workforce development. Community and technical colleges, including Lehigh Carbon Community College, Lehigh Career & Technical Institute and Northampton Community College, provide skills training required for an increasingly technical workforce.
“We’re constantly shifting and changing the programs we provide and offer for students based upon what we see as the needs of the community that we’re serving,” says Mark Erickson, Northampton Community College president and chair of the Education and Talent Supply Council.
As an example, Erickson points to a line worker training program the college developed for the utility company PPL, which is facing an aging workforce.
The Affordable Care Act is changing needs in the health care industry, he says, creating “this whole new category of health care worker that didn’t exist before. Based on our conversations with all the hospitals, we put together a new program in public health that just had its first group of graduates.”
He says the Education and Talent Supply Council is another example of how industry and education can work together to immediately address workforce needs.
“One of the real strengths of this college is our agility,” Erickson says. “The council is all about doing a deeper dive. We’re having conversations with the employers by sector, sharing data about our gaps and then making sure that ... we’re filling those gaps with appropriate new programs and activities aligned with what they need us to do.”