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The ‘Ruler Test’ and One-Question Workforce Survey

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Eileen Anderson is the director of Government Relations for SMC Business Councils, which merged with the Manufacturer & Business Association in 2019. Contact her at 412/805-5707 or eileenanderson@smc.org.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a mountain of conflicting information. One headline contradicts the next whether it is economic or medical news. Who do you believe? That is one of the reasons why I sent out personal emails asking members about their hiring plans. The survey was prompted and preceded by several eye-opening meetings with new MBA member, Don Williams, president and chief executive officer of Weatherspoon & Williams, LLC.

Here is a bit of background: Williams’ business is procurement of heavy highway structural steel (for example, sign structures and poles). The company is a certified sub-contractor with transportation departments in 10 states. Williams created 90 percent of the signage at the Pittsburgh International Airport and is assisting with construction of the new airport upgrades.

Williams had the largest minority owned sign factory in the United States on Pittsburgh’s North Side. One of his companies built 100 miles of border fence under President Bush, an opportunity through Tom Ridge, then-secretary of Homeland Security. He also owned a steel manufacturing plant in Ellwood City where they built transmission towers for the Department of Energy. Williams was bought out, retired for a year, and then returned to business with his daughter. Williams’ bottom line is he wants to get jobs because he has a quality, well- priced, on-time product, not because he is black.

Themes from our conversations:

  • People are saving money, businesses are making few capital investments, orders are down, businesses and consumers are uncomfortable.
  • The pandemic has changed everything, and things will not come back the same way. There are new questions like, “Should we all work at home?”
  • Business is based on trust and relationships. In-person meetings are preferred but this is changing.
  • His five-year plan is now a four-month plan. Lawmakers must adjust their decision-making and understand the impact of their decisions on businesses.
  • He offered to help MBA and lawmakers by adding his front-line perspective on issues.
  • Recovery and growth can be helped by availability of people who want to work. He could hire three people tomorrow with the required aptitude, good attitude and willingness to learn. He recalled at a previous location young men on the streets asked him for jobs. He gave them a “Ruler Test” because making signage depends on the ability to measure. “If you can’t read this ruler, go home and study it and come back,” he said.

Headlines led me to believe that every business was laying off workers. When Williams said he could hire three more people, it prompted this workforce survey: Assuming you have access to the types of workers required, how many workers, if any, would you hire in the fourth quarter 2020?

The results provide insight into the economy:

• 75 personal emails were sent and 43 (57 percent) replied. Of the respondents, 63 percent were manufacturers, 37 percent were professional services and other.
• 49 percent will not hire in the fourth quarter. Reasons varied from “not yet recovered,” “hired in the third quarter,” to “workforce has been reduced by 26 percent.”
• 51 percent are hiring.
• The total number of worker respondents needed is 92.

This points to the need for a skilled workforce. Things may not return to business as usual, but the workforce must remain on our agenda. In 2019, Pennsylvania had the lowest unemployment in 50 years at 4.4 percent. The future challenge will be where to find the workers. State demographics show a declining workforce in years to come.

According to the Pennsylvania Demographic Outlook from September 2020, “If labor force participation rates do not increase, then this trend will constrain economic and revenue growth in the future.”

We cannot have young men flunking “ruler tests.”