Where are the workers?

That's the question business groups say they'll be focused on in 2019, as they seek to address workforce development issues that range from how the opioid crisis threatens would-be employees' ability to pass drug screens, to the need for technical talent, laid bare by the Amazon HQ2 bidding war.

"One of the biggest problems businesses face is workforce," said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry. "We're going to be making a major effort on that." The results of the group's annual economic survey drove that point home: 14 percent of employers cited difficulties finding qualified employees as their No. 1 concern, making it the most common problem, above concerns over taxes and health insurance.

Barr cited several underlying problems that are making it harder for employers to find workers with the right skills. For one, "the opioid crisis is having an impact," he said. To get hired, prospective employees commonly have to pass a drug test.

Addressing how those with criminal records can reenter the workforce is another priority. "Changing how we view people who've had a brush with the criminal justice system is going to be important," Barr said.

Filling jobs is an issue small businesses are confronting, too. "Folks tell me they get virtually no applicants for new positions," said Gordon Denlinger, Pennsylvania state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation is hosting a roundtable discussion next Monday on how businesses can tackle talent shortages. A report that the group sponsored found that "middle-skill" jobs that require more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year college degree, make up the biggest portion of the state's labor market – but that only 37 percent of New Jersey's workers have the skill sets to match those jobs.

As the dust settles on the midterm elections, a business group in Pennsylvania is making plans for the next legislative session. The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia is already working with the General Assembly on bills that center on the chamber's "Grow PA" initiative, which advocates for modernizing the state's infrastructure, facilitating health-care innovation, creating new pathways for higher education, and reforming the state's corporate tax code.

Job readiness cuts across all of those areas, said chamber chief executive Rob Wonderling. "We need to modernize our workforce development broadly, but with an eye toward really propelling our health-care sector," he said.

The Grow PA strategy is meant to address what Wonderling described as decades of economic decline, coupled with the outflow of Pennsylvanians to other states, and a coming retirement wave. The chamber estimated that over the next seven to 10 years, the state will add a paltry 100,000 to 115,000 new, nongovernment jobs — while, during that same time, it will also add 877,000 retirees to the rolls.

"You just can't generate enough economic activity to sustain the population," Wonderling said. Grow PA started as a discussion through an online forum and a weekly newsletter in fall 2017, and the chamber has been working to build a network of supporters. So far, it has engaged more than 70 local chambers of commerce and 200 interest groups, including alumni and higher-ed associations, around the state.

Even in a polarized political environment, Wonderling views the agenda as "really practical and nonideological."

The Pennsylvania Chamber is also focused on higher-ed issues, and not just at the state capitol. "Part of it is letting students and parents and guidance counselors know that there are options other than a four-year degree," Barr said.

That message is not intended to discourage students from going to college, he said, but rather to address a stigma attached to getting other types of degrees. "We've done a great job of denigrating trade and technical schools," Barr said.

Philadelphia's loss in Amazon's HQ2 made clear that the region has to address its Achilles' heel for current and future employers, Wonderling said: "We have deep reservoirs of talent. We don't have technical talent."

Barr said it is worth examining Pennsylvania's corporate tax rate — one of the highest in the country — in light of Amazon's decision to invest elsewhere. "Certainly the 9.99 [percent] rate would not have attracted them," he said.

For small businesses, tax credits could be part of a solution that allows enterprises to train more people on the job. "You would hire someone who doesn't exactly match your criteria, do some training, and get them into a role that would fit them best," Denlinger said.

Small businesses are also looking for fixes in health-care costs that are "impacting their ability to survive and be profitable," said Denlinger, acknowledging that the issue is "bigger than a Pennsylvania problem."

"Pieces of the Affordable Care Act have been removed over the last two years," he said. "We need our Washington-level legislative leaders to come together and stabilize the marketplace so the costs are predictable."