Last updated: February 19. 2013 3:34PM - 360 Views

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Ninety-six million people within 500 miles, great highway connections to reach them, a booming natural gas industry and a low cost of living. That's the picture drawn in the updated Regional Profile just published by Penn's Northeast, the agency tasked with helping to persuade companies to locate in Luzerne, Lackawanna, Monroe and Wayne counties.

Other than natural gas drilling, that pitch isn't a whole lot different from what I heard 25 years ago from the Committee for Economic Growth, with location and low living costs at the top of the list.

It's the cost of housing, all of the cost of living factors and then the proximity that makes it desirable, Penny Cannella, Penn's Northeast president, said last week.

Those factors certainly have been instrumental in attracting an endless parade of distribution centers to the region, and why not, they're true. We're close to major markets in the lucrative Northeast and — judging by our continually high unemployment rate — have a steady supply of people eager to work for substandard wages.

The proof is contained in the report. A cost of living page offers various charts that show housing prices half or less of major eastern metro areas and household income numbers so low they don't even need to be compared. But the next page makes clear that businesses moving here can expect to pay lower salaries than in five larger markets — 26 percent less on average. Even in health care, which is one of our strongest industries, average wages are only 80 percent of the next lowest region offered for comparison. One of the largest differences is in a category that includes my job, media, where average salaries are 30 percent lower and about equal to an administrative support job, aka a secretary, elsewhere.

This is not necessarily a bad thing if the low pay rates attract good employers who offer advancement opportunities or increased pay rates for workers who improve their skills. No doubt some of that occurs, but the fact the larger picture hasn't changed much in a quarter century says the positive effects have been limited.

One reason that's the case is a continuing lack of educational attainment, a topic that is not addressed in the presentation. Like the nation, this region lags behind much of the world in nearly all measures of education and training, in part because rather than develop employees' skills companies can shop around for the best combination of low costs and government incentives, moving jobs about the nation as needed.

For proof, just look at the latest ranking of states by Site Selection magazine, where the No. 1 attribute is state and local tax scheme. Interestingly, while low priced land and commercial buildings — something we have — are ranked fourth, low wages aren't in the top 10, but existing work-force skills is sixth.

This argues for a heightened emphasis on education and skill development, something local colleges have pushed for a few years. But obviously there's a long way to go and it's unlikely anything short of a concerted local, state and national effort will succeed.

With the economy limping and the national mood in a funk, this year's campaign rhetoric has been long on finger-pointing and short on vision. After Tuesday, we need leadership in both the White House and Congress that will face up to need for this nation to do a better job of helping its citizens prepare for a challenging future, and far better education and training are key.

If we don't get that, we may more likely be moving around goods made elsewhere than producing them.

Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at rbartizek@timesleader.com or 970-7157.

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