About Laura Fisher

Laura Fisher Laura Fisher is senior vice president, special projects at the Allegheny Conference. She manages the Conference's Workplace strategic initiative, focused on diversity, talent attraction and retention, and building a well-prepared regional workforce. Previously she helped to manage the year-long Pittsburgh 250th anniversary celebration, including the restoration of Point State Park and the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. She served as executive director of French and Indian War 250, Inc. and managed a 20-state commemorative program.
Laura Fisher

This article first appeared in the May 8, 2015 edition of the Pittsburgh Business Times

“Could the next Brooklyn be Pittsburgh?” asks the headline of a recently published article in Brooklyn Based, a popular online magazine about all things Brooklyn. In the piece, the writer interviews seven former Brooklynites who flocked to Pittsburgh to seek out opportunity. She poses the obvious question: Why Pittsburgh?

This isn’t the first time that Pittsburgh has been compared to another hip, fast growing region in the country. It was only a few years ago that the Washington Post declared Pittsburgh “in” and Portland, Ore., “out.” And recently, Cleveland State University noted that Pittsburgh was best positioned to be “the next Boston.” Our region’s high quality of life, relatively low cost of living, and availability of jobs continues to attract national attention. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Brooklyn is taking notice.

bbFor the former Brooklynites interviewed, much of their initial reasoning for leaving New York City’s fastest growing borough had to do with cost of living. According to RealtyTrac, Brooklyn has the nation’s most unaffordable housing market when comparing median monthly household incomes to median housing prices. The same data firm also found Brooklyn is one of the least affordable areas for Millennials in the country. Compared to Pittsburgh, Brooklyn’s overall cost of living is almost twice as high.

Cost of living is important, but there are other reasons why Pittsburgh has become an attractive alternative. Our region was cited as having an abundance of economic opportunity, an educated population that is getting younger and is beginning to grow, and an authentic spirit of community and collaboration. Pittsburgh is a place where passionate, creative individuals can put down roots and feel a true sense of belonging. Opportunity is on the rise here.

This sense of real opportunity is already bringing in a population cohort that is increasingly important to our region’s future – Millennials. While it’s no secret that we have one of the nation’s oldest populations, our younger population is beginning to grow. Since 2010, Millennials have been our fastest growing age group. Between 2010 and 2013, the population of 25 to 34 year olds grew at a rate of 6.1 percent, more than twice the national rate of 2.8 percent. Conversely, the fastest growing age group nationally was 65 and over, which increased by 6.9 percent. Regionally that increase was just 2.3 percent.

Labor force participation by younger people in the region is also higher than the national average, with a 2.7 percent increase among 25 to 34 year olds compared with 0.4 percent nationally. Today, the median age in the City of Pittsburgh is 33.7, below the national average of 37.5.

These are positive trends, but as a community we have more work to do to meet the workforce demands of the future. Today our region’s working age population is home to many more people aged 45-65 than those aged 25-44 in line to replace them, a gap totaling 144,000. Despite recent positive trends (more people moving in than out and a fast-growing Latino population), our overall working age population is not growing fast enough to close this gap before the last of the Baby Boom generation leaves the workforce. There’s no silver bullet that will solve this problem. Rather, we need to be proactive in supporting a multi-pronged approach to attract, retain, educate and train more skilled workers.

The question, “Could the next Brooklyn be Pittsburgh?” is a bit misleading. Pittsburgh has its own unique community, culture and sense of place. It’s what makes us so special. It’s also what makes us attractive to those Brooklynites who are seeking a new place to call home. We must leverage our assets and work together to attract and welcome more talented individuals from Brooklyn and other regions across the country. Our region’s future depends on it.

Laura Fisher
Ha'Penny Bridge over Dublin's RIver Liffey
Ha’Penny Bridge over Dublin’s RIver Liffey

DUBLIN — With the redesigned ImaginePittsburgh.com now nearly four months old and brimming with new offerings every week, I’m excited to be overseas to talk about it and the opportunities it showcases.

Along with my colleagues from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the business development and marketing arm of the Allegheny Conference, we’re visiting Dublin, Manchester and London to make the case that our 10-county region is a great place to live, work and play. Along the way we’ll be connecting with “Pittsburgh alumni” – not just graduates of our region’s universities, but anyone with a tie or interest in returning to our region. Those who have been away for a while may be surprised at how much things have changed for the better.

Tonight we’re gathering at Google Ireland – the headquarters for all of Google’s operations in Europe – to commemorate existing ties between the two nations and foster new ones. We’ll also be networking and sharing information about opportunities available right now back home. ImaginePittsburgh.com’s job search engine highlights more than 30,000 open jobs, and we have more than 20 Featured Employers that have joined the site because they have career opportunities to share.

Tomorrow we catch a plane across the Irish Sea to Manchester, England, a city that – like Pittsburgh – has a rich manufacturing history. My PRA colleagues will discuss the business opportunities back home in that still-robust sector, including those that have emerged from new energy markets. We’ll continue to spread the Imagine Pittsburgh message at a reception at the Manchester Art Gallery.

By Thursday we’ll be in London, making more business development connections, and all of us Pittsburghers excited for the big Steelers vs. Vikings game at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. Game day will find us hosting a celebration at a pop-up “Steelers Bar” in Farringdon’s Sportsbar & Grille. We’ll watch the game on a big screen, enjoy good food, spirits and company, and share information about ImaginePittsburgh.com and opportunities available back home. If you’ll be in the UK on the 29th, or know “Pittsburghers in diaspora” or others there who might be interested in career or business-development opportunities in our 10-county region, tell them to check out the registration link for the event here; we’d love to meet them!

I’ll check back in when I’m back home in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, may the road rise to meet you!

Laura Fisher

An op-ed in the Feb. 4 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette draws attention to an important issue already challenging our region’s economy and quality of life: the widening gap between available, well-compensated jobs and individuals available to fill them. As the presidents of the community colleges of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland county noted in the op-ed, this “skills gap” is seen in today’s estimated 1.5 million job vacancies in the United States for jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

We also see this locally. Last fall the Allegheny Conference’s workplace committee – which works in partnership with the region’s community colleges, technical schools and our public workforce system – released an occupational analysis that found there will be thousands of jobs available in 14 critical jobs in all seven sectors making up our energy economy. All but one of these requires at least some post-high school training. With Baby Boomer retirements accelerating, that labor supply shortage is likely to radiate across non-energy fields as well.

After the economic upheavals of  the 1980s, many young people were advised to pursue careers elsewhere. Since then, though, our region has diversified its economy dramatically, and we now have more people employed than during steel’s mid-century heyday. The old “there are no jobs in Pittsburgh” refrain is no longer true.

It is true, however, that just a high school diploma won’t get you a good job any more. Some post-high school training is essential, and certificate and associates programs offered at community and technical colleges can lead young adults — and mid-career professionals who upgrade their skills — to well-compensated jobs in energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and more.

The Conference applauds the work of the community colleges and technical schools in providing and expanding this training. Job seekers are urged to check out programs and projects – such as ShaleNET and JobTrakPA – that are available in the region, as well ImaginePittsburgh.com, the Conference’s career awareness and job search portal. Pittsburgh does have jobs – and the training needed to get them.

Laura Fisher

When workforce demands start growing, the ShaleNET  program gets going with comprehensive recruitment, training and placement and retention services for employers and employees in the natural gas industry.

ShaleNET is a U.S. Department of Labor-funded $4.9 million multi-state workforce program addressing current and future jobs in the burgeoning natural gas industry. Focused initially on the Marcellus Shale natural gas play in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York, ShaleNET in September received another DOL grant totaling $14.9 million. This second grant will extend programmatic and geographic reach.

An innovative partnership between educators (primarily in community colleges and technical schools) and the natural gas industry, ShaleNET now will also prepare individuals in places like Texas and North Dakota to successfully fill key shale gas jobs. The program draws on best practices and demonstrates the value of “stackable credentials”  in preparing workers for jobs open now and those anticipated in the future. Stackable credentials can be accumulated over time to build up a person’s qualifications and help him or her to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.

The partnership approach distinguishes the ShaleNET initiative. Through industry and academic partnerships, employers and potential employees are able to benefit from ShaleNET’s one-stop training model. Redundancies are reduced, curriculum is current and standardized and those seeking training don’t have to guess at which training options will provide them with what they need to be successful on the job.

Leaders from industry and academia recently gathered for the fourth annual ShaleNET Workforce Forum. They included representatives from the four schools delivering ShaleNET training:  Navarro Community College, Corsicana, Texas; Pennsylvania College of Technology, Williamsport, Pa.; Stark State College , North Canton, Ohio; and Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood, Pa.

Also participating in the forum was Jane Oates, U.S. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary of Employment and Training Administration and Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Dennis Yablonsky. Both were featured speakers addressing the unique benefits of this partnership and its potential to become a national model for workforce development.

Watch the video below to learn more about ShaleNET’s value to training providers and as a government investment and why Pittsburgh is uniquely poised to advance this type of approach as a successful model.

Laura Fisher

By the time you read this, I will be in Germany on a week-long study tour as part of the Cities in Transition Initiative, a project of the German Marshall Fund. The program aims to identify approaches that Europe’s traditionally industrial cities have taken to address economic dislocation, and explore how these might be used or adapted by us back at home. I’m looking forward to the program and to comparing notes with participating colleagues from Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit and Flint, Mich.

There is much that the Pittsburgh region shares with Germany. Two hundred years after immigrants from German states began populating what was then Allegheny City, theirs is still the most common ancestry of our residents. Germany leads foreign direct investment in the region with 70 companies accounting for 172 establishments.  These employ more than 10,000 people and include names such as Bayer, Flabeg, LANXESS, Siemens and Sycor. Germany is also an important market for some 30 regional companies, which operate more than 60 facilities there across a variety of industries.

Like Pittsburgh, the cities we’ll be visiting have rich industrial roots and – by drawing on R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship –  have managed to create new sectors while modernizing the manufacturing that was downsized by global economic forces. Dortmund, along the Ruhr River in west-central Germany, was long a center of coal mining and steel making, but has leveraged university and other R&D to grow its technology, bio-medicine and advanced manufacturing sectors. Stuttgart, in the southwest, is often called the birthplace of the auto industry, and remains home to Daimler and Porsche, as well as the European headquarters of Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

The similarities end, unfortunately for us, at Germany’s broad success in connecting young talent with technical training and skills that land them well-compensated, in-demand jobs in today’s industries.  In the U.S. generally and the Pittsburgh region in particular, the response to decline of manufacturing in the 1980s was principally to turn an entire new generation away from such work.

How can we change the conversation and reinforce the notion that an individual cannot only be proud of working with his or her hands, but earn salaries and benefits far greater than many other jobs not requiring a four-year degree? How do we communicate the message that to be a welder is a just as important as – and often more attainable than – being an engineer?

The Pittsburgh region has thousands of good jobs and careers that individuals can land starting with a high school diploma and certifications, often obtained in a matter of months at a technical school or community college. Once on the job, workers can, over time, obtain further credentials – certifications, an associate’s degree, even a bachelor’s degree – that increase their skills and earning potential.

I am particularly keen to learn how German educators, business leaders and parents talk about technical careers and associated educational options with young people. In our own region, we know from a recent study of energy occupations that we already have more demand for technical talent than we can supply, and that the future for talent with all sorts of post-secondary credentials is extremely bright.

What can our counterparts in Germany teach us about how to convince the generation of Pittsburghers hunting for jobs now – and those coming up behind them – that having too many options and pathways can be just as problematic as having too few? Today, too many students and their parents see an “all or nothing” proposition in post-secondary education: a bachelor’s degree is a must, even if one’s particular career goal doesn’t require one. We know the great learning a four-year degree can bring, and that it is – and will remain – needed for many positions that require such a degree. But national data show that only 42 percent of students who start a four-year program actually finish (and often in six years), and too many students pursue degrees that are not in demand. We need to be sure that young people are making as well-informed choices as possible.

I’ll let you know what I find out. Stay tuned.

Laura Fisher

As previewed in my April 16th post, I had the good fortune to be in Dunfermline, Scotland for the unveiling of the striking bronze marker honoring Brigadier General John Forbes at his birthplace. Dunfermline is a beautiful town just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. The marker (made in Pittsburgh by Mathews International, the oldest company in Allegheny County) is a permanent reminder of the deep ties that exist between western Pennsylvania and Scotland.

Pittsburgh and Edinburgh share both history and the “burgh,” but we also share crazy April weather (it was sunny, raining, snowing and sleeting all in one day), as well as a neighborly penchant to take anyone a “wee bit” lost by the hand, and deliver them personally to their destination.

The Allegheny Conference's Laura Fisher is flanked by "Gen. John Forbes" and "Andrew Carnegie," as well as real-life Forbes descendant Lawrence Kippie in Dunfermline, Scotland.

“General Forbes,” “Andrew Carnegie” and a real-life Forbes descendent, Lawrence Keppie, joined me in unveiling the marker. I thought the Forbes re-enactor looked just as he should and just as I’d imagined the general. When I asked him what he liked about portraying Forbes, he said it was actually a somewhat new experience as he usually portrays kings (he does a great Robert the Bruce, apparently). It was fun to talk about these historic figures with someone who helps bring them to life for the public.

Joining me in Scotland for the festivities were Scott Stephenson, an expert on the Seven Years War in North America and curator of collections at the Museum of the American Revolution, soon to be under construction in Philadelphia, and Joanne Hanley, a trustee of Fort Ligonier and the president of the Gettysburg Foundation. Joanne and I found Scott to be a marvelous guide, with incredibly deep and resonant knowledge of the people and places in Scotland that helped shape events in 18th-century North America.

Historic Dunfermline and members of the Fife Council welcomed us with a memorable dinner at Pitfirrane House, the family seat of the Halkett family which was built in the 1540s. Sir Peter Halkett and his son James were both killed at the Battle of Braddock in 1755, and are buried somewhere near the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, PA. At the dinner we also met members of the Carnegie UK Trust who are discussing a possible exhibition with The Andy Warhol Museum, and who regularly work with counterparts in the U.S. on the Carnegie philanthropy awards. We all agreed it makes compelling sense to connect the various relationship threads to create a more coherent and vibrant ongoing transatlantic partnership.

The chance to meet some truly engaging and thoughtful people, especially our facilitator extraordinaire Frank Connelly, made for many happy memories. But we also experienced powerful and sometimes melancholy reminders of how individual decisions and actions quite literally can change the course of history. Seeing the refined and orderly world that John Forbes called home made the wilderness and sheer terror of the frontier he faced in Pennsylvania even more compelling. His sense of duty, honor and perseverance — even in the face of fatal illness — exemplifies the power of such personal influence. We also encountered another startling example. We spent a morning enthralled by the Forbes papers at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. There we saw a letter from George Washington to John Stanwix, then British commander in Pennsylvania, dated March 4, 1758, just a month before the Forbes campaign got underway.

In his letter, Washington complains of an ongoing and debilitating gastric illness that surely made the reality of mid-18th century daily life an ordeal. In the same letter, he told Stanwix of his keen disappointment to have received no promotion in the British military, and he was, in fact, contemplating complete retirement from the army. Talk about a “What if”! Had Washington actually retired, he most certainly would not have played a significant role 20 years later in 1776, as his French and Indian War service is what led to his starring military role in the American Revolution.

In 2013, we’ll have the chance to invite our friends in Scotland to Pittsburgh for the completion of reconstruction of Point State Park. That is when we’ll be able to install permanently our own Forbes Trail marker here. It will be another occasion to celebrate some common bonds and a shared appreciation for the power and importance of our historic sites.

The Scotland Courier ran this story about the unveiling ceremony.