By Lindsay Andrews
America’s workforce has changed a great deal since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. When life as we knew it was upended in March 2020 and businesses scrambled to keep their doors open and determine how to safely operate in the face of an invisible enemy, it took grit and an innovative, resilient spirit for employers to find their way out of the darkness.
The Pennsylvania Chamber was honored to have launched our “Bringing PA Back” initiative so we could serve as a sounding board for our members and local chamber partners; an information hub for employers to access the latest re-opening information and health and safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control; and as a conduit between the business community and lawmakers as we worked to strike the perfect balance between keeping our economic engine churning while preserving public health.
With 2021 came a light at the end of the tunnel with the rollout of vaccines, and the semblance of a return to normalcy as gathering limits were erased mid-year and businesses enjoyed a much-needed boost in revenue. In the months since, the Delta variant (and most recently, the newly discovered Omicron variant) has unfortunately forced the world to take a step back in our journey to defeating COVID-19, with businesses and schools again requiring mask-wearing and people questioning if we’ll ever truly be free of the virus and its variants.
While the PA Chamber continues to promote vaccination as the best way forward, we’re also taking stock of the ways that Pennsylvania has been forever changed by this tumultuous two-year time period and are forging a path forward that turns the challenges we’ve faced into triumphs.
“Rise to the Challenge” Together
This year, the Pennsylvania Chamber’s “Bringing PA Back” initiative entered into its “Rise to the Challenge” phase, which has focused on research, data collection and the surveying of employers and Pennsylvania citizens to assess the full scope of our Commonwealth’s current economic standing and develop recommendations for the future.
Across these metrics, one undeniable fact emerged — Pennsylvanians trust business above any other group to lead the state out of the pandemic.
“Having gained the trust of everyday Pennsylvanians to overcome the hurdles of the past two years is an awesome and humbling responsibility, and one we don’t take for granted,” PA Chamber President and CEO Gene Barr said. “Our effort to not only get Pennsylvania back to where it was before March 2020 but well beyond what any of us could have envisioned if this pandemic hadn’t occurred … the idea that we can take these challenges and turn them into an opportunity to redefine what Pennsylvania’s economy can become for everyone who lives here … that’s a challenge we’re honored to take on.”
The data metrics we’re measuring are the basis for an interactive dashboard on the “Bringing PA Back” website and are reflective of key areas in which employers are either drawn to or dissuaded from investing in the Commonwealth. Taking a fact-based assessment of where we stand in comparison to other states across several areas that include (but are not limited to) GDP, new small businesses, the labor participation rate, population growth and infrastructure buildout is laying the foundation for a strategy that emphasizes Pennsylvania’s attributes and improves upon its weaknesses. This will encourage potential investors to focus on the areas where the state shines nationally and globally — our prime geographic location, vast natural resources, attractive cost of living, and more.
Pillars for Progress
The foundation of the PA Chamber’s initiative is in three key areas — or ‘pillars’ — that will achieve the overarching goal of Equality of Opportunity so that every citizen of the Commonwealth has access to the education and skills training they need to embark on a meaningful career here in Pennsylvania. The pillars are manifesting the third phase of our initiative — “Propel PA Forward” — that will blaze a path toward a strong economic future.
The first pillar — competitiveness — is grounded in pro-business public policies that are proven to make a positive economic difference in the states that have implemented them. The PA Chamber, our broad-based membership, and traditional allies have promoted policies like lower business taxes, a fair and equitable civil justice climate, and less regulatory red tape for decades. Now, by working to educate the broader public on the attributes of these policy goals, we’re aiming to gain voters’ support for these measures and see them enacted for the benefit of our economic recovery.
Workforce is the second pillar of our initiative. Since 2016, the PA Chamber has battled back against a workforce skills gap, or a shortage of qualified candidates to fill open positions. This problem became a full-blown crisis in the wake of the pandemic. Our goal to educate students and their families on the education and training necessary to land good paying, 21st century job continues through our support for career and technical and four-year education tracks, along with a focus on retaining those skilled workers once they’ve obtained their degree or certification. Pennsylvania’s world-class educational institutions set our state apart, but we need to erase the ‘brain drain’ trend — the tendency for workers to pack up and leave for what they deem to be more attractive locales — by promoting everything the Keystone State has to offer.
Infrastructure stands as the third important pillar of our initiative. The PA Chamber has always maintained that a key government role should be to invest in and maintain a safe, modern infrastructure network — both in the traditional sense (roads and bridges) and in the 21st century sense (pipeline development and 5G expansion.) Determining how Pennsylvania stacks up against other states and laying out a blueprint for what an infrastructure investment plan should look like is central to our initiative, as so many industries and the jobs they provide — from energy to transportation to telecommunications — are tied to it.
Propel PA Forward
Even before COVID-19 reached the United States, the PA Chamber was working to make Pennsylvania more attractive to business investment through our support of various pro-business policy initiatives like tax reform and civil justice reform. These measures still make economic sense, which is why they’ve carried forward into “Bringing PA Back.” However, the pandemic has spurred so many changes in day-to-day business operations that our organization and businesses statewide must now view things through a different lens.
“Some people might see the policy goals of our initiative and think, ‘What’s the difference between what you were advocating for then, versus now?” Barr said. “The difference is that now we’re promoting these policies in an environment where more people are listening, because our economy is really struggling to recover. Though there’s such a heavy divide on many policy issues, everyone wants to see our communities do well and that means keeping businesses’ doors open. So, not only does it give us a chance to connect with people who weren’t necessarily ‘with us’ before, but it encourages us to listen to them. What do they want in an employer? What steps should they take if they’ve been out of work since this pandemic started and they want to jump back in? There are so many opportunities for a productive dialogue.”
One glaring area where this dialogue must occur is in childcare. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded an existing childcare crisis to epic proportions — both with the closure of childcare centers and schools to protect the public health, but also with an exodus of parents from the workforce (particularly women and women of color) to care for their children.
The PA Chamber, the PA Early Learning Investment Commission and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania joined forces earlier this year to publish a report that showcases the impact of childcare issues and the workforce, and provides actionable solutions for addressing these challenges — namely, encouraging employers to be flexible with their workers’ changing childcare needs and determine how to continue supporting them.
As we “Propel PA Forward,” the PA Chamber is confidently advancing its agenda with a vision of inclusivity — to expand the tent of people to whom our message resonates; to listen to employers and citizens across Pennsylvania and allow their experiences to shape our agenda; and to act in a way that benefits every citizen of this Commonwealth and sets our state up for long-term economic success.
While this pandemic has certainly imposed challenges, we have the opportunity to learn from those challenges and come back stronger than ever. The sky is the limit on how far we can go.
Lindsay Andrews is director of member communications for the PA Chamber.