Smith: Region’s workforce, transportation issues are Pittsburgh Chamber’s focus

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

As a former state legislator, Matt Smith represented the interests of a broad swath of constituents in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Now he’s out of politics, but as president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Smith demonstrated Friday he continues to hold the business and economic interests of the entire region close to his heart.

Smith gave what he described as “the 30,000-foot view” of his chamber’s mission to more than 100 members of the Washington Chamber of Commerce during their monthly breakfast meeting in Southpointe.

That view – which includes developing and executing policies and initiatives from workforce development to transportation issues – takes in a 10-county vista, including Washington and Greene.

Prior to being named to lead GPCC in June 2015, Smith was a state senator representing the 37th District, which included a portion of Washington County. Previously, he served three terms in the state House of Representatives.

Today, Smith’s organization advocates for Southwestern Pennsylvania as one leg of a trio of groups that include the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Pennsylvania Economy League of Pittsburgh. The three are the affiliated operating groups of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The overarching goal of the three groups is to create an environment for business growth in the region.

“Most of the growth in job creation comes from creating an environment for existing companies to grow and add more business and jobs,” Smith said, noting that in that respect, the region is doing well.

He cited data from PRA’s recently released 2015 “Business Investment Scorecard” that showed last year there were 275 major investment deals totaling $2.9 billion that helped to create 14,951 jobs.

With the region’s diversified economy that includes advanced manufacturing, health care and life sciences, finance and business services, information technology and energy, “we’re better prepared than most regions in the country to go into the future,” Smith said.

But there’s always room for improvement, he added.

According to Smith, his chamber’s agenda for the next three years will focus on finding ways to improve transportation and connectivity, as well as workforce development and talent attraction and retention.

The latter is as sobering as trying to find ways to help people commute better to their jobs.

He noted that between now and 2025, nearly 300,000 workers born during the baby boom generation will retire across the region.

“Because the next generation doesn’t have the volume of people” that the baby boomers had, “we’ll be short 140,000 people to fill those jobs,” Smith said.

The deficit, if not adequately addressed, will affect everything from the region’s ability to compete for companies locating operations here to investment coming into the region.

Even now, Smith said, the number of job openings on the website at any given time averages 20,000.

To remedy the problem, Smith said his chamber is supporting passage of comprehensive energy legislation at the federal level that would provide for fast-tracking engagement of the Department of Energy and its National Energy Technology Labs to help build energy and manufacturing workforces of the future.

His group also supports passage of an immigration bill that would specifically support ways to bring highly skilled immigrants to the region for work.

On the state level, Smith said, “We’ve got to get a handle on the state’s pension situation,” adding that municipal pensions also pose a problem for many communities in the region.

To Smith, solving the pension problem would go a long way toward helping to fund public education.

On the regional level, Smith said transportation issues includes improving Pittsburgh International Airport’s competitiveness, with a focus on adding more services for international and West Coast routes.

Smith was asked whether his chamber was addressing the region’s manufacturing, once known for steel and glass.

“We need to make sure we’re making the case to local manufacturers that the region is in the era of cheap energy,” he said, adding that the region “needs to use the energy resources we have” to attract more industry here.

When asked if he could give an update on the status of the proposed Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Smith said, “There’s no breaking news. All signs are positive,” he said, adding that there has been no final commitment by the company