Catalyst Connection's diversity initiative includes a portfolio of tools and guidebooks employers can download for free. Photo by senivpetro on Freepik.

Before the Covid pandemic, skilled manufacturing jobs were going unfilled in the Pittsburgh region. But business shutdowns, supply chain problems, and medical and quarantine issues exaggerated the challenge of hiring people, says Petra Mitchell, president and CEO of Catalyst Connection.

The pandemic worker shortage was part of the impetus behind Catalyst’s diversity initiative to attract more people to manufacturing jobs, she says. 

Catalyst’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility services target women, people of color, people with disabilities and veterans to help them gain basic skills needed for manufacturing positions. 

“Many of them have high potential,” says Mitchell. “They just haven’t had skills preparation so we have an effort to make those opportunities available.”

For employers, the services aim to provide “help in developing creative inclusive environments and a welcoming place for workers to feel engaged,” she says.

Catalyst is a nonprofit organization that offers training and consulting services for small manufacturers in the 12-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania. Most companies it serves have 500 or fewer employees and are engaged in fabricated metals production or machinery manufacturing. 

Catalyst is based at Hazelwood Green, a redeveloped former steel mill site along the Monongahela River in the city’s Hazelwood neighborhood. 

Petra Mitchell, president and CEO of Catalyst Connection. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

Its diversity initiative includes a portfolio of tools and guidebooks employers can download for free to help design and implement strategies including a self-assessment to evaluate their own organization on best diversity practices.

Catalyst is also developing a consulting practice to deliver services to companies in person, says Mitchell. 

To attract more skilled workers, she says, “You can’t look in the same pools you’ve looked in before.”

Women, for instance, hold 33% of entry-level jobs in the engineering and manufacturing industries and only 23% of leadership positions in the executive suite in those sectors, according to a 2022 report from McKinsey and that surveyed 333 companies in the U.S. and Canada. 

“It’s not good enough to just recruit women,” says Mitchell. “If they get into the environment and aren’t welcome, they’re just going to quit.”

Investing in enough restrooms for women seems to be an obvious step but might be a challenge for manufacturers who for decades employed mainly men. 

“You have to create an environment where people are welcomed and treated well,” says Mitchell. “How do we help companies meaningfully diversify?”

High school students attend Manufacturing Day at Catalyst Connection in October 2022 to learn about careers in manufacturing and robotics. Photo courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

In its recently released 2022 annual report, Catalyst said it generated $7.5 million in grants last year for the region to stimulate capital investments and workforce training. 

The grants included funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, federal Economic Development Administration, Appalachian Regional Commission and U.S. Department of Labor, Mitchell says.

Catalyst used the funds to support assistance to regional firms that supply the government’s defense supply chain, workforce development programs for employers, and pre-apprenticeship programs to introduce job seekers to opportunities in manufacturing. 

Also last year, Catalyst was named one of five agencies in the region that will receive a share of $62.7 million in federal Build Back Better funds that will be deployed in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

The funds will be awarded over four years through the New Economy Collaborative, which will oversee a regional plan to boost jobs and economic development in robotics, artificial intelligence and automation. 

Catalyst will receive $4.8 million to offer technical assistance and implementation of those advanced technologies for small manufacturers engaged in construction, energy, agriculture, healthcare, mining and transportation.

Companies in the region are currently applying to be selected for the funds through a challenge grant, says Mitchell.

Build Back Better is part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan designed to assist with pandemic recovery.

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Joyce GannonContributor

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.