The reality about skills, drugs and unemployment

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In a story that appeared in this newspaper Aug. 8 on the long waits many patrons who use the Washington Rides transit system have experienced in recent weeks, we were struck by an observation made by Sheila Gombita, the executive director of Washington Transportation Authority.


She pointed out some of the problems with Washington Rides, which provides transportation for the elderly and the disabled in the county, spring not from a dearth of funding, but an inability to find employees who are willing to work for $10.50 per hour, and meet other prerequisites, such as having a clean driving record, being able to operate a vehicle that is equipped for wheelchairs, passing a criminal background check and a drug test.


As we have pointed out on this page before, this is an issue that other employers in this area have had to confront. Even as unemployment has hovered above 6 percent for seven years, and even as the Marcellus Shale boom has created opportunities for those who might have once labored in the region’s steel or glass factories, some jobs have gone unfilled as some potential hires head for the exits when they find they have to pass criminal background and drug tests.


In 2011, we reported on how mining and gas jobs in the area were not being filled by residents from the region because they were “skills deficient” in literacy and that some simply dropped out of training courses for jobs in the natural gas industry once they found out they would have to clear the criminal background and drug testing hurdles.


And last year, Gov. Tom Corbett stirred up a tempest when he suggested that some of the commonwealth’s unemployed were unable to leave the sidelines because they couldn’t pass a drug test. Corbett’s phrasing may have been inartful, but his opinion was backed up by many business leaders. David Taylor, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, told the York Dispatch that some potential employees “don’t have the internal discipline to show up on time, and they can’t pass a drug test.”


Taylor added that many manufacturing jobs now demand laboring in hazardous conditions, and dealing with volatile chemicals or potentially dangerous equipment, and stone-cold sobriety is necessary in these circumstances.


“To operate a safe workplace, manufacturers need a drug-free environment so nobody gets hurt or killed,” Taylor said.


This is not to suggest that all of the unemployed are drug-addled slackers – far from it. Job growth has been as slow as a groggy tortoise in the years we have spent recovering from the Great Recession.


All too many diligent and able workers have been pounding the pavement looking for employment, but have had no luck or have had to settle for jobs that come with lower pay, fewer hours or that use only a fraction of their skills.


With all of the problems they have had to face, the unemployed shouldn’t be subjected to crude stereotyping.


But the reality that some idle workers lack the necessary skills or are unable to pass a drug test shouldn’t be sugar-coated, either. Addiction is a bona fide problem in this region and around the country, and workers who lack basic skills limit their life possibilities and hobble the economy. Improving the way addiction is treated and the way our students are educated are the only long-term solutions.


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