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Workforce development data sharing must adapt or die

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(The Center Square) — State agencies across the commonwealth gather data on jobs, employment, and the economy — but they struggle to share it, hamstringing how useful it is.

Legislators have taken notice and are looking to compel some digital cooperation.

Senate Bill 761, introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, would require the Department of Labor & Industry to share information about workers, unemployment, and economic trends with local workforce development boards. The boards would then use the information to develop local plans and Labor & Industry would offer technical assistance on how to use the data.

“As things modernize and technology moves forward, things happen at a much, much quicker pace,” Bartolotta said. “The demand for instant data is so great — and wasn’t really so pressing before apparently — but it’s well past time that we step up and make this data available so it can change, not just the lives of employees, but entice more investment in Pennsylvania.”

The senator argued the change would create a one-stop-shop, catching up with the approach used in neighboring states like New York, which made a similar change a decade ago. As it stands, some workforce-related data can take up to two years for development boards to get, she said.

“It’s far past time that we step up and make things easier for industry to move in,” Bartolotta said. “Pennsylvania is great at standing in its own way.”

Data-sharing would include unemployment claims, wage records, new hires, workforce program results, and other economic information.

The bill received its first consideration in the Senate last week, but awaits further action.

“I owned a business for 31 years and you have to adapt or die. We’re not adapting in Pennsylvania,” Bartolotta said. “It seems so ridiculous and we’ve got low-hanging fruit … we have the data, but we’re not sharing it …We make it so challenging and difficult for places like our local workforce development boards. These places want to help people get to work, they want to put programs together for the burgeoning industries — those skills most in demand today, not two years ago.”

Clearing out roadblocks and barriers, she said, was like playing whack-a-mole in the state.

“(Workers and employers are) in the dark looking for each other at the moment — let’s turn the lights on,” Bartolotta said. “Is this gonna solve all the problems? No, but it’s gonna solve a whole lot of problems that exist now because we have an antiquated system where the data is not being shared.”

The push for better economic coordination comes as Pennsylvania struggles to encourage economic growth beyond a few hot spots. Though unemployment remains low, so are labor force participation rates, and the state has 50,000 fewer jobs than previously estimated.

Job gains in Pittsburgh have been below as western Pennsylvania deals with “employment doldrums;” statewide, legislators have warned that innovative projects must survive a “valley of death.”

Bartolotta hopes, with the support of Pittsburgh Works Together, the United Way, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the Pennsylvania Chamber among others, that her legislation will get rid of one more problem facing workers and employers alike.

“Things move so rapidly that you have to stay up to speed or you’re out of the race,” she said. “I’m tired of Pennsylvania being out of the race at every opportunity … We’re losing good workers, we’re losing investment, and we’re losing opportunity.”