LEHMAN TWP. — Nearly two hours of testimony Tuesday from seven administrators at five area colleges and universities boiled down to one theme: The region’s high unemployment is caused less by lack of jobs and more by lack of people trained for the jobs that exist.
During a public hearing by the state House of Representatives Majority Policy Committee at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, testimony and questions from the six representatives hit heavily on shortages in some fields and gluts in others.
Scott Massey, director of the physician assistant program at Misericordia University, told the legislators a huge shortage of physician assistants looms. “Right now, there are about 95,000 PAs in United States. The estimated need through 2020 calls for about twice that much,” he said.
Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, cited statistics showing about a fifth of state students who earn a degree in education either leave the state to get a teaching job or go back to school for another skill. Misericordia Director of the Insalaco Center for Career Development Bernadette Rushmer said that may be partly a question of what jobs they have actually seen people in.
“You’re absolutely right that they often think teacher,” Rushmer said. “I believe that’s because they’ve been exposed to that.” She suggested it’s important to help students see other options.
Penn State Wilkes-Barre Chancellor Charlie Davis said that’s exactly what the school’s new Career Services Center attempts. “We try to get them in the door and to start thinking about that from day one,” he said.
Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy said part of the equation is to anticipate demand, citing the school’s newer programs targeting growing industry such as nanotechnology. He also said it’s important to ask existing businesses what skills graduates must bring with them.
Rep Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, had arranged to hold the hearing on the campus. “Parents come to us saying ‘My child graduated with a degree, they are in debt and they cannot get a good-paying job in the state, they have to move out of state or go back in debt,’ ” Boback said. “My first question always is ‘What did they major in?’ ”
Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, noted she is frequently contacted by people in their 40s and 50s out of work and looking for a job. “Are we just not reaching out to that generation or that group, to connect them with what’s out there?” she asked.
Luzerne County Community College Vice President of Workforce and Community Development Sue Spry said many of the school’s programs are designed precisely for such “transitional workers,” including the Employment Retraining Opportunities Program, which provides a person collecting unemployment with 12 credits at no charge, to help them start training — or finish training they had never completed.