Reversing decades of economic struggle in America’s former manufacturing centers is a high priority for leaders in cities and regions across the nation. Many would like to see technology-focused industries lead such a resurgence, but do they have enough qualified workers? And if not, how can they increase those numbers? A new RAND study uses quantitative and qualitative data to investigate the state of play in Pittsburgh, including comparisons with Nashville and Boston, and highlights a few important implications for the K–12 and postsecondary education sectors.
In brief, the research team finds that the seven-county Pittsburgh metro area is decently positioned to capitalize on the anticipated growth of science- and technology-focused (STF) employment sectors, with some important caveats. Approximately 18 percent of Pittsburgh’s workforce is currently employed in STF occupations, ahead of both the national share and the share in the Nashville metro area (16 percent), but lagging the Boston metro area (21 percent). Additionally, a large proportion of Pittsburgh’s STF workers are in the health sector, which requires somewhat different skills than what analysts term “technician and production-related” industries, where the most job and wage growth is expected to occur. And while Pittsburgh’s STF workforce grew as a share of the overall labor force between 2015 and 2019, the pace of growth was too slow to fill all STF positions in that period, let alone new ones expected/hoped for in the future.
For any region to capitalize on future STF growth, such trends must change. The authors discount the long-term future of remote work as a solution, noting that the most desirable STF jobs are place-based (think robotics, autonomous vehicles, and other tech-related R & D work). Instead, one set of recommendations focuses on drawing new talent into the region. Suggestions include boosting wages in STF fields, investing in civic amenities and affordable housing (a fairly easy lift for Pittsburgh since its cost of living is relatively low already), and “addressing the racial disparities in public-facing systems (such as health care and lending) to demonstrate the region’s commitment to equity.” Analysts recommend that colleges and career training academies in the region—described as having plenty of potential to train the next generation—create scholarship programs for students and especially for learners of color. Interestingly, remote learning is highly valued by the analysts, even if remote working is seen as less likely in the future. Having employers committed to these efforts—and to hiring the folks who respond to the incentives—is also deemed important.
Another set of recommendations focuses on attracting existing workers and current students toward STF employment. Two barriers in this area are a lack of understanding of STF jobs and a lack of transparent data to illustrate how education and employment connect. The first barrier appears to be a legacy of Pittsburgh’s manufacturing past. That is, focus groups indicate that STF work is seen by many as a “dirty job” with limited future potential, akin to steel-working and coal mining. Recommendations to overcome such misinformation include STF-focused career counseling in high schools and targeted recruitment efforts by undergraduate programs and employers. Public information campaigns run by regional authorities explaining and extoling the jobs and their potential benefits could also be part of the solution.
The second barrier is exemplified by the fact that the state’s longitudinal data system collects only limited information on postsecondary education, does not connect to workforce data, and is difficult to access for both researchers and practitioners. It is also separated from important data collected on outcomes for participants in programs on Pennsylvania’s Eligible Training Provider List. As a result, officials in the Pittsburgh metro area are unable to assess the effectiveness of local education and training programs, describe actual STF career pathways for students, and demonstrate the real-world value of training programs.
Some of these changes are easier than others to implement. Employers are freer than municipal or county executives to allocate money and staff to recruitment efforts and internal culture changes. And attracting new residents of any stripe depends as much on the reception of the beckoning message as the form of the message itself. The report’s call for better data alignment and transparency between K–12, postsecondary education, and the workforce is important and should be among the easier recommendations to enact. For the most part, these are state-centered data systems—one entity with a lot of pull; there are plenty of roadmaps and examples for how to achieve the final product; and the benefits of a successful effort would transcend one industry and extend into any desired workforce pathway. Pittsburgh, of course, isn’t the only region struggling to align employer needs with workers’ skills. For community leaders working on these types of efforts, this report offers an important grounding in where to start.
SOURCE: Melanie A. Zaber et al., “Assessing Pittsburgh's Science- and Technology-Focused Workforce Ecosystem,” RAND Corporation (January 2023).