Unemployment may be above 10% in the Lehigh Valley, but there are jobs to be had, said Nancy Dischinat, executive director Workforce Board Lehigh Valley.
The region’s jobs posting site, CareerLink Lehigh Valley has more than 6,000 listings right now and there are more than 123,000 job postings on Pennsylvania’s statewide CareerLink.
“Right now the Lehigh Valley can put 6,134 people back to work, but we need workers,” Dischinat said.
So why is unemployment so high – more than double the 4.5% it was at the end of last year? Dischinat said there are many factors, and the COVID-19 pandemic is at the center of them, causing fears of working outside the home and changes in childcare availability.
The pandemic-related closing of many industries – particularly in the hospitality field – has probably had the largest impact on employment. Many jobs were lost forever because of the pandemic, she said, but more jobs are becoming available every day. The current challenge is getting the people who need jobs the skills they need to fill the jobs that are available and on the horizon.
“We may have lost some jobs for good, but we have many new opportunities that are coming ahead,” said Sara DeSantis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.
She said that one of the challenges those in workforce development are facing is that many of the people being displaced by COVID-19 are longtime professionals of a particular industry that aren’t used to being on the job hunt.
“This maybe the first time they’re looking for a job in 20 years,” she said.
So outreach, she said, is vital right now.
The Workforce Board is concentrating on educating those needing work about the jobs that are available, the skills they need to land them and where and how they can get those skills to build a career.
The board launched a number of initiatives – many of them online — to help displaced workers find jobs and job skills, but Dischinat said one of the major new initiatives being launched involves in-person events with area employers.
Starting Oct. 28, the board will host Workforce Wednesdays at its offices on Union Boulevard in Allentown. The first participant will be Bakerly, a French bakery company that opened a baking facility for crepes and brioche rolls in Forks Township in 2017.
“Staffing is very difficult in the Lehigh Valley right now. It’s very competitive,” said Brian Regnier, chief financial officer at Bakerly. He’s hoping the hiring event will help his company find the 40 hourly and several salaried positions his company needs to fill.
Fed Ex and Nestle Waters will be the next participants in the Workforce Wednesdays.
But finding workers is only part of the puzzle, Dischinat said. Because many of the available jobs have new skill sets to those looking for jobs, the education component is key. And that means employers are having to step up to the training table. “The employers are becoming one of the primary training vendors that we have,” she said.
Morten Rasmussen, director of operations and human resources at B. Braun, a manufacturer of medical infusion systems in Bethlehem, said his company is helping workers with potential get the skills they need for careers at the company.
“We need people to fix machines. If you come out of high school and come here we’ll skill you up,” he said. “We need technical skills and we try to grow our own.”
Another effort is to establish a library of career pathways for each employer in the Lehigh Valley that educators can use to help young people find the right direction. “Every school is asking for this,” Dischinat said.
So where are the jobs? Gina Kormanik, business relations director for the board said health care remains the industry with the highest percentage of available jobs at 19%.
She said manufacturing is second at 11% of jobs available.
Retail, an industry that has been going through turmoil in recent months, remains a strong percentage of jobs at 10 percent.
Transportation and warehousing is a growing segment of the employment picture with 10% of the overall jobs available in that area.
Kormanik noted salaries are also on the upswing because of the competition for openings.
The average pay for a manufacturing job is currently $19.68 an hour, but Kormanik is seeing many manufacturers offering salaries as high as $25 to $26 an hour to attract top talent.