Talent Supply Council Hears Updates on Pandemic’s Impacts on Employers, Educators

By George Lewis on September 22, 2020

When LVEDC’s Education and Talent Supply Council last met in the fall of 2019, the regional economy was humming, unemployment was low, and attracting and retaining talent was the number-one issue for Lehigh Valley employers.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically slowed economic activity and caused unemployment to spike to double-digit levels. But, as council members heard during a Zoom meeting on Sept. 18, attracting and retaining talent is still the biggest issue for employers.

Representatives from both the supply (education) and demand (employer) side of Lehigh Valley’s talent market addressed challenges – and innovations – that have emerged from the pandemic.

Ray Reilly, Senior Vice President, Division Human Resources, for Sharp Packaging, said the company has had to “think outside the box on recruitment.”

To meet talent needs for its facilities in Upper Macungie, Lower Macungie and Bethlehem Township, Reilly said, Sharp is recruiting workers from job sectors with high unemployment who live in areas outside Lehigh Valley.

Susan Larkin, Vice President for Allied Personnel Services and an LVEDC Board member, said manufacturers recruiting workers from other job sectors to meet their talent needs may have the right idea, but some are struggling with the reality of retraining workers with no manufacturing experience.

“Employers that can successfully adapt onboarding and training processes will differentiate themselves,” she said.

Today’s job market, she explained, is very different from the recession of 2007-2010. Back then, unemployed workers sought jobs, but few companies were hiring. Today, jobs are available, but workers are choosing to stay on the sidelines. They have concerns about childcare, home-schooling, and exposure to the virus. They also have been receiving enhanced unemployment benefits, which have helped influence their decision on whether and when to return to the job market.

To attract workers back into the market, some employers are increasing starting wages and offering sign-on bonuses. Larkin said higher wages for lower-skilled, entry-level jobs have become an expectation of the job market and are here to stay.

On the education side of Lehigh Valley’s talent market, the pandemic has been a game-changer.

Dr. Tim Rushton, Executive Director of Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, asked, how do you make career and technical education, which requires hands-on learning, work in a virtual and hybrid learning environment? LCTI has 2,200 students from nine Lehigh County school districts.

“Hands-on instruction is critical to what we do,” said Dr. Lisa Greenawalt, LCTI Director of Curriculum and Instruction. “COVID-19 forced us to think differently. It taught us that it’s OK to use different methods of instruction.”

LCTI also is leveraging virtual learning to increase work-based experiences such as co-ops and internships for its students and build new relationships with employers as they become more accepting of new strategies in the current environment.

Career and technical education will not go fully virtual, Rushton said. Hands-on learning is essential, but new approaches, such as simulations, provide greater flexibility for technical education.

The pandemic, he said, has changed education permanently.

Echoing that thought was Dr. Mark Erickson, President of Northampton Community College.

“We are rethinking programs, rethinking what the future of higher education will look like,” Erickson said. “We are changing in ways that ultimately will make us better – for our students and for employers.”

This semester, he said, the community college is offering five different modes of instruction, from entirely in-person to entirely online. NCC also is offering new workforce preparation programs in partnership with Workforce Board Lehigh Valley and Lehigh Carbon Community College.

The council was updated on LVEDC research about the regional economy and current job market, and how the pandemic has affected certain job sectors (hospitality, social services, retail, and clerical/administration) and certain age groups (16-to-34-year-olds) more than others. In addition, progress was shared on recent talent initiatives including the second annual Internship Summit, the introduction of an Internship Toolkit for employers, and a new version of Hot Career Guides, refreshed for 2020.

Council members also heard about progress on the Made Possible in Lehigh Valley campaign to raise awareness of the region and its quality-of-life advantages. Marketing Manager Mike Keller said the campaign is looking to attract remote workers and telecommuters looking to leave densely populated cities, and families seeking destinations for day trips and “staycations.”

Keller encouraged employers and educators to include Made Possible campaign videos and printed materials in their recruitment websites. Any organization interested in using materials from the Made Possible campaign can contact him at [email protected].

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