The Cambria-Somerset region has plenty of jobs available. But oftentimes, those positions go unfilled due to a lack of applicants.
COVID-19 took this simmering problem to a full boil for some local employers, as business reporter Russell O’Reilly showed in a March 20 story, in which restaurant owners and others lamented the lack of response – qualified or otherwise – to employment ads and help-wanted signs in windows.
“I’m worried,” Capri Pizza manager Angelo DiRosa said.
“The business is going to come to an end. You can’t run a business without employees.”
At Stem’s Cloverleaf Quick Shop on Belmont Street in Johnstown, owner Bob Stem says he hasn’t received a job application in 10 months. and nobody stops in just to see if he’s hiring.
“I’m scrambling,” he said. “I usually have 10 or 11 employees.
“I’m down to six.”
Linda Thomson, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, said many people might be surprised to learn that there are thousands of open jobs at any given time across the region, especially in areas such as health care/nursing, information technology, manufacturing, retail and food service.
Conemaugh Health Service recently ran a full-page employment ad in The Tribune-Democrat.
But for a variety of reasons – including skills gaps and other forms of compensation – companies often struggle to find people ready and eager to work.
That’s even as the COVID-19 pandemic eases and businesses begin to open further.
Thomson said the applicants shortage can have a negative impact on the recruiting of companies looking to relocate who might see existing enterprises struggling to fill jobs.
“For the good of this community, we need to keep our employers, we need to attract employers,” Thomson said on Tuesday’s COVID-19; Questions zoom forum offered by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, In This Together Cambria and The Tribune-Democrat.
Recruitment is a key function of JARI and other economic development agencies.
“And if we do not have a good solid workforce foundation, we will not be able to do so,” Thomson said. “It raises the whole boat. If everyone puts themselves out there, and does what they can to support our economy, it really does help everyone.”
Joshua Boland, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Council, echoed Thomson’s views on that forum, while noting that most local companies are paying well above minimum wage – $7.25 in Pennsylvania – reflecting an ongoing state and national debate.
“It’s not like there aren’t good-paying jobs available,” Boland said, “and the businesses are willing to work with us and other organizations to train them.”
Several employers pointed to COVID-19 relief programs as providing disinsentives for some to get back into the workforce flow.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry began allocating an extra $300 per week in unemployment payments in January for those who have been out of work due to COVID-19 – an extension of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
Those filing unemployment claims must show that they are attempting to find work.
But some business owners say they will get applications from furloughed workers who never show up for an interview or scheduled work days.
Most employers seem to agree that $7.25 is too low, especially for workers trying to provide for families. But they would prefer to see the wage raised in steps.
We agree with that.
“There are resources out there available to individuals and I’m glad they were able to take advantage of them,” Boland said. “… But I could take 150 people in two minutes in Somerset County employment-wise (and find them jobs).”
Johnstown Mayor Frank Janavokic also serves as executive director of the Alternative Community Resource Program (ACRP), with more than 300 employees over several counties.
The ACRP website listed 20 jobs it was looking to fill as of Friday– most in areas such as mental or behavioral health.
On Tuesday’s virtual forum, Janakovic said the jobs situation is more complicated than just government dollars keeping people from working. He pointed to a lack of day-care services to meet demand across the region, along with virtual learning that requires a parent to be home with children.
The pandemic is still with us, but restrictions on businesses are easing and schools are moving toward more in-person learning. That’s good news.
We will eventually deal with the minimum wage question.
But in the meantime, it is important for those who need jobs to understand that there are many available in a variety of industries and disciplines – and with good pay.
And filling those jobs has the ripple effect of supporting local companies and making our region more attractive to other employers who might be seeking new places to set up shop.