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Surviving in the Wake of a Pandemic: The Economic Impact on Berks County

By Phyllis J. McLaughlin and Jason Hugg

May 18, 2020

The central supporting agency for economic growth, and workforce development in Berks County is the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance. The mission of the GRCA is as follows: “The GRCA was formed as an alignment of three existing business organizations serving Berks County: Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Greater Reading Economic Partnership, Greater Berks Development Fund. This unique and innovative partnership, which includes a 1,200 member Chamber of Commerce, and Berks County’s two leading economic development organizations represents a comprehensive approach to support the business community. The primary mission of the GRCA is to encourage business attraction, business expansion, job creation and business investment in an effort to foster and promote a thriving economy throughout Berks County”  

Key staff members of the organization weigh in and give an excellent overview of the economy and workforce in Berks County prior to the pandemic, and how it has been impacted by the same. They also shed insight into future plans and projections, moving forward, as well as some positive happenings born of the crisis. Katie Hetherington Cunfer, Director of Government and Community Relations, Aaron Gantz, Executive Director of Downtown Revitalization, Pamela Shupp Menet, VP of External Affairs, and Ellen Albright, Director of Talent and Workforce Development shared their experiences during this time of crisis:

What was the status of the job market and the economy prior to the pandemic?

Katie:  “I serve as the government and policy liaison on behalf of the GRCA members at the federal, state, and local level. Before the virus, the economy was booming. The biggest concern for our area businesses was not being able to find enough qualified workers, and working with our area secondary and post-secondary schools to train and retain area workers.  While the skills gap hasn’t gone away, it isn’t the biggest constraint right now.”

Pam:  “We are continuing to receive inquiries from companies considering a location in Eastern, PA; specifically in Berks County. Developers and companies want to be ready for the post COVID economy.”

Ellen: “Prior to the pandemic, unemployment was at all-time lows.  According to County data, the number of officially unemployed Berks County residents in mid-2019 consistently remained under 8,000 for the first time since mid-year 2000 when the labor force was significantly smaller.  Job seekers (and those wishing to change jobs/industries) were met with many opportunities across our highest-priority industries including manufacturing, construction, healthcare, IT, and retail.  Open jobs outweighed the number of qualified talent available to meet job listings.  As Katie stated, our County’s biggest push was-and remains to be-making sure that applicants are able to meet the skills necessary to the jobs available.  This effort requires pairing our school districts, CTC’s and community partners with our businesses, to ensure that talent is job-ready!  Much of this work is being done through the BCIU led Career Ready Berks platform.  Additionally, it should be stated that another looming workforce issue (pre and post COVID-19) is the retirement rate of those age 65+ in many of our high-priority industries.  Specific to manufacturing (Berks County’s largest industry), the “silver tsunami”, coined by the Berks County Workforce Development Board , will see many baby boomers retiring within the next five years, and will require nearly 7,000 new hires to avoid devastating this workforce of skilled labor.”

Please describe how the pandemic has changed the economic climate in Berks, and what immediate action was taken to assist Berks County, and which of these actions continue to provide support to date?

Ellen: “Specific to the manufacturing industry, GRCA responded by quickly providing a robust peer-to-peer forum for industry professionals to work together on new issues and challenges related to COVID-19.  This included a Slack Channel for constant peer-to-peer communication, daily newsletters to the industry representatives, manufacturing-specific webinar content by experts and reputable resources/GRCA members, a taskforce with other regional Industry Partnerships to work on cross-County issues, and a push for manufacturers to retool to create PPE for our community’s first responders.  We look to mirror the work we’ve done with manufacturing companies for other industry clusters, as peer-to-peer collaboration is more important now than ever!”

Pam:  “In February we launched a Berks County Job Portal with PA Americana.  The intent of the portal was to provide connections for Berks County businesses to access the talent pipeline-especially to those who may not yet call Berks County home.  We were able to add a section for Essential Jobs to allow an additional pathway for those companies who remain open to find and access potential employees.”  

What plans are in the works for the future, and how will the “new normal” appear for Berks County?  

Katie:  “GRCA has continued to work collaboratively with our area officials, affiliate organizations, and our business leaders to distribute information in real time and to promote available resources to our entire community. GRCA is in the process of developing a plan for reopening – “Rebuilding Berks”, this is specific to the needs of Berks County’s unique economy.”

How has the staff remained connected and productive during this time working remotely?

Katie:  “We have all moved to conducting business remotely, but we have leveraged those platforms and actually been able to engage directly with members, experts, and government officials faster now that we don’t have to travel to a location.  While we very much see value in person to person interaction and we are looking forward to getting back to that reality, teleworking and video conferencing is here to stay.”

Would you like to share any additional information which relates to rebuilding and moving forward as we look toward the future?

Ellen:  Berks PPE Resource Network – “GRCA is proud to have been a founding partner of the Berks PPE Resource Network.  This initiative began as a string of emails between GRCA, Albright Science and Research Institute, CrossTrainer Mixed Reality, Hamburg Area School District, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA, Berks County Medical Society, Alvernia University, Mantis 3D Printing Berks Alliance, Penn State Berks LaunchBox, and Goggleworks Center for the Arts.  Since the initial email brainstorm took place between these organizations six weeks ago, 97 volunteers have been engaged 210 organizations have been served, and 31,000 pieces of PPE have been distributed.  All materials have been provided at no cost to the end-users which includes a large list of healthcare systems, assisted living facilities, private practice physicians, emergency services and first responders, businesses, and non-profits.  This absolutely incredible grassroots effort has not only supported our community’s heroes, but has also shown how public-private partnerships can be nimble, adapt, and provide solutions by leveraging resources and talent for good.”

Aaron:  Downtown Initiatives – “Businesses in downtown RDG have always relied on each other.  It is only recently, however, that they have been deliberately focusing on the role that collaboration, partnership, and commitment to a common future can play in ongoing revitalization efforts.  Through COVID-19, we have learned that they are even more valuable in times of crisis than they are in times of renewal and rebirth.  Here are a few ways that our downtown RDG businesses found to work together to support one another, their neighbors, and the broader community throughout the pandemic:

  • Numerous downtown RDG restaurants and businesses like Franklyn’s Breakfast, Burgers, & Shakes, Mi Casa Su Casa, Pagoda Apparel, The Ugly Oyster, Saucony Creek Franklin Station Brewpub, The Peanut Bar, to name a few quickly pivoted to e-commerce capabilities for takeout service + delivery options.
  • The team a Barrio Alegria has continued to provide weekly home-based activities across social media platforms to keep our bodies moving and our minds & hearts connected.
  • While we could not enjoy Berks Jazz Fest together in person this year, Berks Arts Council provided a series of free online concerts featuring encore performances.
  • With the arts in mind – GRCA is continuing to collaborate with the Berks Arts Council on exciting public art initiatives in downtown Reading.  Look for more information on the Fast Lane Art program and other projects this summer and fall.”

Pam:  “Thanks to the support of the Berks County Commissioners, GRCA is able to more fully support the work of the Berks County Department of Agriculture and the Agri-business sector in Berks County.  We have launched an Ag Resource Newsletter to specifically reach this important industry sector of our community.  We are also conducting outreach to determine the most meaningful way that we can offer support (financing, connections to markets, etc.)”

 

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