Photo Credit: April Gamiz, The Morning Call

On Thursday, January 11, Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Mike Sturla and State Representative Mike Schlossberg hosted a roundtable discussion entitled “Where are the jobs?” Seven representatives from regional economic development, municipal, and union organizations participated in the discussion to lend their expertise on the topic, including Allentown Economic Development Corporation Program Manager Anthony Durante.

The goal of the roundtable was to discuss how things like automation in manufacturing and the growth of online sales are impacting the landscape of the job market in our region and how legislatures might enact policies that encourage growth and ensure job creation and retention.

The sentiment across the panel was that changes were happening in the manufacturing and retail sectors that can’t be stopped, so the best we can all do is learn to adapt and embrace them. Several panelists, including Durante, expressed that the gloom and doom in the press about machines replacing jobs is not exactly accurate.

“It’s true that several tedious manual manufacturing processes are now being done by automated systems, which does eliminate those positions,” explained Durante. “But it also creates new positions for people to operate and troubleshoot those machines as they run. Those new jobs require a higher skill set and are higher paying positions. However, I have personally witnessed companies trying to retrain workers for these new positions to prevent layoffs.”

Despite the impact that online shopping is having on the retail industry, the Lehigh Valley has remained surprisingly resilient to its impact. Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Don Cunningham pointed out that two major retailers, Amazon and Walmart, collectively operate more than five million square feet of distribution warehouses in the Lehigh Valley. With its proximity to the Northeast Corridor, where nearly 75 percent of the population of the country is centered, the Lehigh Valley has become a major hub for distribution and transportation of goods being purchased online.

The panelists unanimously agreed that the education system needs to be actively involved in reshaping the workforce of today and the future. Schools at all levels need to ensure that STEM topics drive the learning at all levels. Several members felt that trade schools and community colleges could not only be utilized to provide key education and training as opposed to a traditional four-year degree, but could also be the primary training ground for retraining workers whose positions are potentially being offset by automation so that their skills are current, and they remain a vital part of the workforce.

Durante also encouraged the legislature to recommit state budget line items for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Many of these technologies are just in the early phases,” explained Durante. “There are opportunities for them to be improved upon and implemented in new ways, and Pennsylvania is in a terrific position to take advantage of that with its tech hubs in the Lehigh Valley, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Incubators like the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center and Ben Franklin Technology Partners need to be fully supported by the state so that researchers and entrepreneurs have the resources they need to bring these innovative technologies to the marketplace. These small companies are the ones that create the most jobs in our regions and will be the ones that keep Pennsylvania competitive in the future.”