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DMI Companies started 41 years ago with three guys in a garage outside of Pittsburgh trying to solve a problem. Today it is the largest provider of HVAC components in North America. The company prides itself in being forward looking, seeking to stay ahead of the curve on energy efficiency and sustainability and meet the changing needs in construction through innovation.

But who could have imagined a global pandemic?

When other companies were forced to furlough workers or close for good, DMI kept factories in four states humming and some 500 workers employed.

Not only that, the Charleroi-based company shifted production on one of its lines to begin making the metal strips used in the N-95 masks so desperately needed by medical personnel.

Amid the drumbeat of bad news, DMI not only maintained its operations, it is looking to the future, using the slowdown to provide new training, addressing skills gaps in its workforce and prepare for its summer interns.

DMI is an example of a great Pennsylvania employer that is also a strong partner in its community through its work with and commitment to its local workforce development board.

And through this crisis, DMI’s local board, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, and the 21 other like it across the state are providing tools and resources to keep employees on the job and keep businesses moving forward.

Katie Hager, workforce development manager for DMI, said grant funding for training through the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board has been “critical.”

She praised the board’s development of the Advanced Manufacturing Industry NextGen Sector partnership for making training programs for existing workers more cost effective. NextGen Sector Partnerships is an industry-driven collaborative approach that links like-minded companies with community partners such as schools, economic development groups and government.

Hager also pointed to the Experience Works Plus program that has enabled DMI to recruit the brightest high school graduates who are “work ready,” having completed training in communications and leadership skills, financial planning and networking.

COVID-19 disrupted the plans for one Southwestern Pennsylvania intern at a different company. Aaron Washington had completed Job Training for Beaver County Out of School Youth through Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC) and was supposed to start an IT internship at a steel mill in March but the pandemic upset that placement. In response to Aaron’s situation and that of many others, PTC, another valuable partner to South West Corner Workforce Development Board, quickly retooled its program. Aaron was able to go back to the college this spring and complete his degree through online learning while working part time at a bookstore.

Brandon Schaffer, the training manager for a large automotive plastics manufacturer in the southwest, said his company has taken advantage of training programs for new and existing workers. Schaffer said he is looking forward to being a part of a new workforce development apprenticeship program as the company emerges from its COVID slow down.

Ami Gatts, director of the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, which serves Beaver, Washington and Greene counties, and the current chair of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association, sees challenges ahead as counties move from the state-ordered restrictive red and yellow phases to green.

Gatts doesn’t think the region will “go back to the way we were,” but she thinks the crisis could offer opportunities for workforce development and for employers to explore new platforms for services, as well as fuel investment in badly-needed broadband infrastructure for rural communities.

She said PA CareerLink centers, all of which are operated by the PWDA member workforce development boards, are gearing up for so-called “soft” opening in early June, as job seekers who normally would have come in person, will be able to access virtual training and job placement resources. She said the new state of “virtual reality” points up the need for reliable broadband companies to develop new platforms in the workplace.

Even as the region scrambles to address the multitude of employment issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it is still facing the challenges brought on by an existing crisis: the opioid epidemic.

Opioid addiction put Kenneth Haskins behind bars for four years and claimed the lives of two young cousins. During his time in prison, he seized every opportunity to overcome the struggles with substance use disorder and the decisions that led him there.

When he got out, Ken contacted Pennsylvania CareerLink Beaver County seeking to become a certified recovery specialist (CRS) in the addiction treatment field. That led him to Job Training for Beaver County Inc., which provided opioid grant funding for Ken to enroll in PSU Beaver’s CRS program. In March Ken accepted a full-time CRS position with Tadiso, Inc. outpatient services to those with opioid addition.

Pennsylvania local workforce boards have helped Pennsylvania work for more than 50 years. As employers move to re-skill workers and reimagine the post-pandemic workplace, the workforce development boards are also hard at work retooling their programs to meet the critical new needs of companies, their employees and job seekers and in doing so, helping to rebuild the commonwealth’s economy.

Carrie Anne Amann is executive director of the Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association, a statewide trade association that advocates for and supports local workforce development boards.

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