I was really struck by a statement I heard Monday as the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board (TRWIB) kicked off its annual Imagine! Career Week series of events. The goal of the annual breakfast is to encourage employers to get involved in career education. I was moderating a panel at the Carnegie Science Center featuring Joe Belechak, chief operating officer, dck worldwide and chair of the TRWIB board; Mark Latterner, executive vice president and regional senior credit officer, Citizens Bank; and Bruce Niemeyer, vice president of Appalachian/Michigan Strategic Business Unit, Chevron North America.

The statement that struck me was Belechak’s. He told the audience that, “something like 150,000 to 160,000 people in our workforce [are members of the Baby Boom generation – 50+] and there are only half that many people in the pipeline behind them.”

At a time when some have expressed concern that our region’s employment growth is slowing relative to the national average, Belechak’s point underscores the degree to which opportunity may be under-estimated and underappreciated in our region. As a result of the economic bust of the ‘80s many employers, especially in our traditional industries were cutting jobs, not hiring young people. Roll that clock forward 15-20 years and the lack of hiring a generation ago translates into a leaner resident pipeline when it comes to mid-career professionals of all types: the 30-somethings and 40-somethings whom employers need to develop to fill the gap that will be left when the Baby Boomer generation retires.

Both Latterner and Niemeyer talked about the steps Citizens and Chevron have taken to build their pipelines, not just by reaching out to people who are already in the workforce and might be considering a career move, but by reaching down into the schools and inviting young people inside their organizations to shadow, intern or be mentored.

The good news is our Baby Boomer-heavy workforce still has a few good years left (more than a few, I hope). Demographics are also beginning to tilt in our region’s favor. Today both employment and labor force are at or near record highs and, according to PittsburghToday.org, the population of “greater” Pittsburgh topped 2,360,733 last year. For the fourth year in a row more people moved into the region than moved out. Business Insider recently provided one recent transplant’s perspective about moving into the region from California.

These trends are encouraging, but they need to accelerate to keep up with the demand for skilled workers and to replace the Boomers who are beginning to retire. The job search engine at ImaginePittsburgh.com indicates that more than 29,000 open jobs are going begging in the region because too many available workers within the region lack the skills employers need.

The solution may not be obvious but it is pretty simple. No matter what happens with new job formation in the region, to capture the opportunity ahead we’re going to have to educate, train and attract a lot more people to meet the demand for skilled workers and to transfer knowledge from the Baby Boomers before they retire. We’ve got to act now to make sure we can maintain our recent momentum.

Fortunately the many public and private sector partners behind Imagine Career Week understand the issue and they’re on the case. All of us need to help spread the word about ongoing opportunity in the region, especially as the rest of the national economy heats up.

Also as part of Imagine Career Week, TRWIB released their summer jobs report which includes some important findings about youth employment in our region. You can read the report here.