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Warehouses, freight haulers scramble to find workers

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Warehousing, moving and storing freight continue to be big business in the Greater Lehigh Valley and throughout Pennsylvania.

But the vexing question remains: How to find enough qualified workers to fuel the logistics and transportation industry.

“Go back just 25 short years and look at the Lehigh Valley alone,” said Maureen Donovan, assistant director of workforce and community services at Lehigh Carbon Community College.

“How many industrial parks do you remember? Now look at the industry today,” she said, referring to the virtual explosion of transportation and warehouse hubs in the Lehigh Valley over the past decade.

Donovan said the growth of warehouse and dispatch services is proof of the industry’s health and continued vitality in the region.

Maintaining a skilled workforce, along with grooming new blood to enter it, is a primary concern of area trade schools, community colleges and the companies who hire them.

Donovan said recruiters set up career fairs and speak to students nearing graduation at LCCC.

“While an 18-year-old can get a commercial motor vehicle license, major trucking companies set 23 as the minimum requirement to be employable,” Donovan explained.

And Frank Zukas said that dichotomy is a double-edged sword for an industry hungry for new workers. Zukas is president of the Schuylkill Economic Development Corp., based in Pottsville, Schuylkill County.

“They [new drivers] might have the credentials, but don’t have the time logged to be noticed by large companies, it’s that old paradox, everyone wants someone with experience, but how do you get experience without a job,” he said.

Donovan said the age ceiling has started to relax recently, in part to help fill existing positions.

“There has been demand for more drivers,” she said.

Having supply meet demand isn’t a recent problem, according to Zukas.

“It really began in 2000, with the opening up of the Route 81 corridor and Route 78 in the Lehigh Valley,” he said.

According to Zukas, not only are drivers in high demand, but skilled warehouse employees become a valuable asset when opening big-box warehouse hubs, such as those in Fogelsville, Breinigsville and other areas throughout the region.

“What you see is the need to immediately find 500 staff when one of those opens up, and there is a need to front-end load. It’s a Herculean effort,” Zukas said.

Skilled workers in food service warehouse and distribution logistics are even more highly prized, as they must often be certified in using volatile and dangerous gases such as ammonia.

This year, Pennsylvania is poised to inject as much as $1.8 billion in new funding to expand the logistics and transportation sector over the next five years, according to Erin Waters-Trasatt, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

“A lot of states like Maryland and Virginia are spending and attracting businesses, and these are states that have become more competitive for transportation firms to locate to than Pennsylvania,” Waters-Trasatt said.

Waters-Trasatt said Gov. Tom Corbett’s goal in beefing up transportation funding is to tip the scales in favor of Pennsylvania by investing heavily in roads, bridges and other necessary infrastructure.

Donovan said federal regulations have changed the rules over the past decade and that the qualifications for commercial drivers have been upgraded.

“This has opened the field for endless opportunity for trained, safe, dependable drivers,” she said.

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