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July 9, 1998

Regional economic development plan unveiled

In the past, rich coal seams, confluent rivers and other non-human resources lured employers to southwestern Pennsylvania. Workers followed.

But today, it's the quality of the region's workforce — and the ease with which employers can find workers with skills required for available jobs — that most concern many employers, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said yesterday in unveiling an ambitious economic development plan for the region.

"Perhaps more than any single factor, the availability of a skilled labor force affects crucial business decisions, notably whether to remain in our region, whether to move into our region, whether to expand in our region or whether to go elsewhere," said Nordenberg, who chaired a group of business, education and civic leaders called the Oversight Committee of the Regional Workforce Development Initiative.

The committee's report, released at a breakfast meeting in Downtown's DoubleTree Hotel, emphasizes training workers in skills that employers need, matching workers with available jobs, and coordinating the region's various training providers, including community colleges, private and proprietary schools, colleges and universities.

After assessing southwestern Pennsylvania's workforce development and delivery systems and studying economically successful regions such as southeastern Wisconsin; Michigan, and Charlotte, N.C., the oversight committee made 10 major recommendations. They include: * Targeting for workforce development support those industries with special potential for regional economic growth.

* Mobilizing employer "industry action groups" to help shape training programs and advance economic goals.

* Aggressively pursuing state and federal funding already available for economic development.

* Eliminating funding barriers that impede economic growth.

* Establishing a customer-friendly business environment.

* Clearly defining and supporting the role of the region's community colleges in workforce training.

* Becoming a leader in use of new tools to assess occupational needs and worker skill levels.

* Using computer technology to link workers with job possibilities through a regional "one-stop" career center system.

* Taking full advantage of the region's human talent.

* Ensuring that regional investments pay off by carefully monitoring progress toward meeting the oversight committee's goals and periodically reporting back to the community. The report recommends entrusting this job to the Working Together Consortium, the volunteer collaborative of community leaders that created the oversight committee.

Nordenberg announced a number of actions already underway to implement the oversight committee's recommendations. For example, the Rapid Software Training Pilot Program, a partnership between the state, the Pittsburgh High Technology Council and MASTECH, a global information technology services firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, began its first class yesterday. The program seeks to rapidly train people threatened with losing their jobs for new careers in information technology. Along with MASTECH, UPMC Health System and PNC Bank are sponsoring employers.

— Bruce Steele

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