Enter the entrepreneurs

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 3/29/22

WAYNE COUNTY, PA — For employers looking to hire, it’s a tough market these days. While that’s certainly been no secret in Wayne County, the evidence became crystal clear at a …

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Enter the entrepreneurs

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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — For employers looking to hire, it’s a tough market these days. While that’s certainly been no secret in Wayne County, the evidence became crystal clear at a recent job fair. More than 40 businesses across various industries and disciplines set up booths to advertise open positions, with better pay and better benefits. Fewer than 40 job seekers showed up.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the local economy with a mix of both challenges and opportunities. As stay-at-home orders throughout 2020 required employees to work remotely, and high transmission rates inspired many city-dwellers to escape to someplace more rural and sprawling, Wayne County seemed poised to attract young entrepreneurs from New York City and Philadelphia.

But with an aging workforce—one that is dwindling—as well as a significant portion of the area lacking broadband access, the question remains: Will Wayne County be able to capitalize on this urban flight?

A mixed bag

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania published a report in 2021 which found that home sales had boomed in rural communities in the commonwealth, and declined in urban areas during the first year of the pandemic. The majority of these sales and transfers came from people in counties with significantly higher COVID-19 transmission rates moving to less-severely affected areas. What’s more, Wayne and Pike saw the most dramatic spike out of any other counties in the commonwealth; Wayne’s property transfers increased by 51 percent between 2019 and 2020, and Pike by 41 percent.

“We have a lot of churn going on here,” said Mary Beth Wood, executive director of the Wayne Economic Development Corporation (WEDCO), adding that she’s seen a trend in business owners who have purchased homes here deciding to bring their businesses here too. “If this much activity is going on, how do we capture that and keep that?”

That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, though. Not only do Wayne and Pike counties have the oldest workforces in Pennsylvania, but the state’s northeast region has also seen the biggest dip in its “annual civilian labor force,” according to Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance [WPWA] data. Between 2008 and 2020, most NEPA counties lost around three percent of their workforce; Wayne’s plummeted by 14 percent; Pike was not far behind.

The slew of stay-at-home orders, restrictions on indoor gatherings and other regulations during the early days of COVID-19 had probably the most direct economic impact on the hospitality industry. Considering that hospitality is one of the top employers in Wayne County—accounting for about one-fourth of all the jobs here—it’s not surprising to see the number of employees drop so severely.

However, Lucy Ann Vierling, the WPWA’s executive director, said that it’s important to look at these trends holistically. For example, while the number of workers has been falling, the number of people starting new businesses in the county has been on the rise. Perhaps the two are related. What many have dubbed “the great resignation,” she prefers to call “the great awakening.”

“You’re seeing these different trends. Our business incubator, the Stourbridge Project, we’re out of room,” Vierling said. “People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I should take that idea I have in my head and move it forward.”

Still, “we don’t have enough kids,” as Vierling puts it. After graduating from high school, the majority of the area’s younger residents must leave the area if they want to pursue further education at a college or technical school.

“We are not surrounded by colleges and universities,” she said. “If you read through different reports, we’re considered an educational desert.”

The WPWA has been trying to fill in the gaps. The organization received a grant through the USDA to work with Lackawanna College, which has a satellite campus in Hawley, to help local businesses “train to retain” their employees.

“If your employees need upscaling, how can we help you?” she said. “We want to bring in resources, so the outlay is not going to be unattainable on behalf of that business.”

Vierling said the alliance has also run a successful internship initiative lately. Internships, she said, aren’t only for college kids, but people of any age looking to get into a new line of work, maybe pursue a passion later in life. It acts as a “try before you buy” experience for both the employees and employers.

Between April 2021 and today, the alliance set up job-seeking residents with more than 60 internships at local businesses. The goal was to see 10 jobs result from the program; they’re at 37 so far. Due to the success, Vierling has applied for an extension to this federally funded program.

Broadband access

It’s not only about the people. As Wood said, Wayne County is facing that same challenge as the rest of the country, which is to keep up with the fast-moving world of technology, remote work, gig work and robotics.

“The remote workers, they’re already coming, and they’re already here… In order to capture economic activity from that group, we need to have the technology here,” she said. “We know we have areas of deficiency [in broadband access]… Remote workers coming in want to work, they want to bring their families and contribute to the economy; we need to have that technology base for them.”

That’s why expanding broadband in more remote parts of the county is a top priority for WEDCO. In 2020, the Wayne County commissioners approved spending over $1 million in CARES Act funding to invest in various broadband expansion projects. The commissioners and WEDCO are also working with a consultant on a long-term project to build “middle-mile infrastructure” that local internet service providers could tap into. Working with another consultant, they hope to eventually complete the “final mile” of the effort, which would provide internet service directly to residences and businesses.

Meanwhile, Vierling is talking with the three local school districts about how they can provide courses to educate and build interest in engineering, manufacturing and robotics early. If these types of employers are going to becoming more prominent here, Vierling wants local students to be prepared to enter those fields.

“That’s the future, and we’ve got to stop thinking about what do we need today,” she said. “It’s what do we need in the future… Because technology is changing at such a rapid pace, if we don’t start implanting those core skill sets, we’re not going to keep up.”

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