This article was featured on LancasterOnline.

At the recent annual meeting of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County, attendees were asked two questions related to Lancaster County’s manufacturing and agricultural workforce.

While the exercise was a test of the collective audience’s knowledge, the main purpose was to stress the importance of having solid information driving our decision-making in economic development.

Manufacturing and agriculture are key drivers of Lancaster’s local economy, so, arguably, our community knowledge should be relatively strong.

Considerable efforts to strengthen the manufacturing workforce pipeline are underway today throughout the local workforce development system, including K-12 education, higher education, career counseling and government programs.

The good news is that business and government leaders are paying attention to these efforts.

The opportunity, in a region as manageable as Central Pennsylvania, is to dig a little deeper than just macro trends. For example, our area’s manufacturing community is incredibly diverse.

There are a variety of sub-sectors —think printing, concrete and food processing — all at different points in their economic life cycles. These sub-sectors reflect a broad range of occupations. Some may be common to the breadth of the manufacturing sector, while others are niche.

Importantly, there are considerable data sets that capture these details. Analyzed and understood, this information supports our community going beyond recognizing the macro shift in aging demographics to advancing a more personalized Central Pennsylvania workforce development strategy.

Data on agriculture are quite different, in part due to the way federal economic data collection was set up over a hundred years ago.

There is no question that Lancaster County is an agricultural powerhouse, ranking high statewide and nationally in key areas of production.

Significant support industries —often referred to as supply chains —exist in the county because of the strength of our agriculture, multiplying the economic impact of this sector even further.

Yet, examining the economic development needs of agriculture is often left to anecdotes or instincts.

From a business community perspective, what data exist, not only to evidence the strength of the sector, but to illuminate the opportunities, risks and challenges that may guide efforts to ensure this important sector is supported and growing?

At its annual meeting, the Economic Development Co. highlighted this knowledge gap by soliciting estimates of Lancaster County’s on-farm workforce — that is, how many people age 15 or older work on our local farms.

The wide range of responses underscored that this information isn’t readily known.

To be fair, the answer to that question isn’t simple or commonly available, as it is derived from surveys conducted every five years plus additional cross-referenced data and estimates.

Additionally, as many Lancastrians know, often family members take on specific tasks or help with seasonal needs. These helping hands, while contributing to the overall farming operations, are considered unpaid workers.

On manufacturing, the question addressed the change in the manufacturing workforce age 55 or older from 2000 to 2016.

Ultimately, the audience overestimated, by a pretty significant margin, the aging of the manufacturing workforce. This result isn’t surprising, as there has been a significant focus locally and nationally on this issue.

These two examples, tied to key industries driving Lancaster’s economic health today, are used to underscore the opportunity to apply localized analytics into strengthened and refined action suitable to our community.

Economic Development Co., through its new Center for Regional Analysis, has commissioned research on these two topics to advance these discussions.

Informed with robust, local and current economic data and analysis, business and community leaders will be able to determine priorities and drive decision making more effectively.


Column written by EDC President Lisa Riggs.