Speaker discusses AI’s benefits for businessesJanuary 12, 2024, By Matt Churella, Altoona Mirror
Alliance holds first monthly gathering since official merger
As workforce issues and declining population rates continue to challenge local businesses, there are tools businesses can use, such as artificial intelligence, to alleviate some of the concerns, according to Brad Burger, the president/CEO of Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies.
Burger was the first guest speaker for the Blair County Alliance for Business and Economic Growth’s monthly breakfast club gatherings since the merger between the Blair County Chamber of Commerce and the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. was made official.
He said the trend of declining populations is impacting communities everywhere in the world, including the six-county region — Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntington and Somerset — that make up the Southern Alleghenies, which he said is forecasted to have its population shrink 30% by 2060.
He said the Southern Alleghenies region makes up 10% of the land in Pennsylvania but has only 3% of the state’s population. The steepest population declines, he said, are in Blair and Cambria counties because the railroad and steel industries are gone, which forced people to leave the areas in search of job opportunities.
Burger said it’s difficult for businesses to grow and expand with a shortage of available workers.
“Is anybody feeling that stretch out there? I bet you are,” he said to a packed room of Blair County Alliance members in The Casino at Lakemont Park’s Soho room. “This is happening globally in industrialized areas.”
Altoona Blair County Development Corp. President/CEO Stephen McKnight said the Blair County Alliance merger was important because the two organizations can speak with one voice about the advantages of working and living in Blair County.
McKnight said the county needs more people to relocate here to start businesses and potentially employ other people to work in the county.
“What we’re seeing now are these opportunities that are spreading across all industry sectors in all locations,” McKnight said. “We have to recognize that we have a chance to bring more people in.”
Burger said there are many actionable ways the community can address concerns created by these trends, which include increasing fertility rates, increasing immigration and decreasing migration.
Increasing labor force participation and expanding productivity are the key metrics for businesses to explore, he said.
Burger said there’s usually someone during his presentation who says, “Well, if people would get off their couch and get to work then we’d have enough workers.”
“What this data is saying is, ‘Nah, that’s not really the case, unfortunately,’” Burger said. “That by itself doesn’t solve the labor shortage.”
He said Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies has been working on tools, such as AI chatbots, to mitigate the negative challenges some businesses are facing, such as low morale or higher rates of employee burnout in the health care and education industries.
“We encourage employers to invest in automation and efficiency technology,” he said before holding his phone up to a microphone to demonstrate an AI chatbot named Chai.
“Hello, I’m Chai, productivity specialist at Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies,” the chatbot said. “My goal is to streamline workloads and boost employee morale.”
The chatbot said it works with local businesses and helps them implement Microsoft Power Automate, a low-cost robotic automation.
“My role involves understanding their current processes, staffing and challenges. Then I provide recommendations on whether they can use their existing IT staff or if they should consider an external vendor,” the chatbot said.
Carter Cerully, business services coordinator at Pennsylvania CareerLink, asked Burger whether there are any specific industries that are most at risk for struggling to provide services with staff shortages.
“I would frame it this way,” Burger said. “I think that there will come a point where as a region we may have to tolerate self-checkout in order to have a nurse in our emergency room when we need to go there.”
He said AI tools are not meant to displace someone from a job. Instead, they allow businesses to take their existing workers and “stretch” their ability to serve.
“That’s what we’re going to need to do,” Burger said.
After the presentation, Cerully said Pennsylvania CareerLink will try to work more with food industry and retail-based businesses because “they’re some of the ones that need it the most.”
Mirror Staff Writer Matt Churella is at 814-946-7520.