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May 21, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

PA bill looks to bolster ‘high-priority’ jobs in need of workers

Keystone Works moves from committee with bipartisan support
 
By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
 
HARRISBURG — Clark Trucking is looking for drivers, especially experienced, skilled drivers, who can haul water to Marcellus shale drilling sites in massive tractor-trailers.

But that's not always easy, especially when natural gas prices are high, and business is booming.
 
"We’re always looking for truck drivers, that's something we're looking for all the time," said human resources director Jeff Andrew, of the Muncy-based company. "When it was booming, it was difficult getting trained drivers who had experience in this industry."
 
The state Department of Labor and Industry calculates 2,132 annual vacancies in the heavy trucking industry, with an average salary of $39,590 a year. That's just one of 18 job categories with more than 1,000 annual vacancies in a state with nearly half a million people out of work.
 
In response, the state proposes the Keystone Works program, a workforce development measure that's included in the 2012-13 proposed budget. 
 
The Keystone Works program aims to match unemployed workers with businesses who provide “high priority occupations," or jobs that are in demand, have a certain skill level and provide a family-sustaining wage. 
 
The House Labor and Industry Committee unanimously moved the bill to the floor Monday, after making several amendments and discussing possible additional amendments regarding business eligibility. For the state, it’s a way to put people back to work — and reduce around $2.3 million in unemployment compensation once it's enacted, according to figures from the House majority office.
 
Program participants would enroll in training for up to eight weeks with the business while receiving unemployment benefits, with the expectation that the business would hire the worker at the end of the training. The business then would receive $375 a month for up to four months after hiring the worker.
  
“We haven’t done enough in the past with matching employers with employees that are actively looking for work,” said House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Miller, R-York. “We have not done enough in the past in promoting high priority occupations, people going into training for jobs where there is actually a need.”
 
According to the Department of Labor and Industry, some of the fields considered high priority occupations statewide include office clerks, customer sales representatives, manual laborers along with freight, stock and material movers, as well as truck drivers. Given the rise of the natural gas industry, jobs in trucking, piping or advanced manufacturing are opening up.
 
Unemployment rates in the commonwealth are decreasing, albeit at a slow rate, according to Pennsylvania Workforce Development figures. Last year, some 507,000 residents were without a job, or 7.9 percent of the workforce. In that same time frame, the civilian workforce grew by around 32,000 workers.
 
The unemployment rate inside the commonwealth has stayed below the national average for the past 48 months.
 
David Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council, which advocates for businesses and business development, said Keystone Works offers positives for businesses and unemployed job seekers. For those collecting unemployment benefits, putting off training may seem like the right idea if it means losing compensation. But after 26, 52 or 104 weeks on unemployment, it will be more difficult to find a job.
 
Incentive to train isn't much, as unemployment benefits are suspended if someone is in a certification program even after being laid off, Patti said.  
 
“The easiest way to find a new job is to have a job,” he said. “It’s just the way it works. So somebody who is just laid off, if we can get them back into the program in three weeks or five weeks, they stand a very good chance of getting a job in this industry they trained with.”
 
The eight-week training period under Keystone Works allows for catching up on vocabulary, skill sets and certification that may be central to a job in manufacturing, tech support or commercial driving, Patti said. 
 
But some question the program's benefits. Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said while the group support putting people back to work, Keystone Works could end up as a turnstile of corporate exploitation, without a provision limiting businesses’ treatment of the program. 
 
A company could not hire the worker after eight weeks, citing no need for new employees after all, only to re-enroll and receive another eight weeks worth of labor courtesy of the state’s unemployment system.
 
“We want people to work, but we want to them to get good pay,” Bloomingfield said. “It would be worthwhile if that person got the training, and moved into a full-time job."
 
State Rep. William Keller, D-Philadelphia, shared the concern about businesses using the program.
 
Keller drafted amendments to the bill, including questioning whether businesses with back taxes should be allowed to participate in the program.
 
Miller said those concerns will be discussed for potential House amendments when the bill is brought up later this session.
 
Vicki DiLeo, Democratic executive director of the House Labor and Industry Committee, said the program at its present proposed funding, $2.5 million, would at best support some 1,300 workers, provided they all completed the eight-week training session, after worker’s compensation costs and administrative expenses.
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