January 17, 2024 

Strengthening Our Rural Communities

With our state’s rural population experiencing a steady decline over the past decade, coupled with the impending challenges posed by the aging baby boomer generation, the workforce landscape in rural Pennsylvania is at a critical juncture. Rep. Parke Wentling invited the Policy Committee to Mercer County to address the profound implications of these demographic shifts, aiming to explore innovative strategies that can attract and sustain a robust workforce in our rural regions.

Focusing on the intricate interplay of factors, such as career perspectives, housing shortages, and job training, the hearing was not merely an exploration of challenges, but a collective effort to forge pathways towards rejuvenation. As we navigate the complexities of sustaining and growing our rural areas in the face of prolonged population decline, the insights shared and solutions proposed in this hearing stand as beacons of hope, guiding us toward a future where a strengthened workforce becomes the linchpin for economic resurgence in regions yearning for revitalization.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

Workforce Developers Panel:

Hon. Rod E. Wilt – Executive Director, Penn-Northwest Development Corporation

Jake Rickert – Director of Workforce Development, Penn-Northwest Development Corporation

Tracy Mantzell – Realtor, RE/MAX Select Realty

Questions for Workforce Developers Panel

Pennsylvania Employers Panel:

Brent Fisher – Director of Operations, Joy Baking Group

Michael Walton – CEO, Jamestown Coating Technologies

Questions for the Pennsylvania Employers Panel

Agenda, Bios, & Testimony

Workforce Developers

The Honorable Rod E. Wilt, Executive Director for Penn-Northwest Development Corporation, began the hearing by detailing the revitalization efforts that Penn-Northwest has made in the region over the past year to stimulate economic growth. In addition to generating 47 new industry leads, distributing 44 prospect proposals, and gaining 4 new company locations in Mercer County, Penn-Northwest has provided over 12 companies with a total of $7.35 million to assist with increased investment and employment. They have also collaborated to launch the $410,000 Mercer County Innovation Fund to encourage entrepreneurship and investment.

Despite these efforts, Mr. Wilt underscored a significant challenge facing Mercer County – a consistent annual population decline of 1% over the last 30 years, notably impacting young families and school enrollment. Recognizing the potential for rural areas to benefit from the work-from-home phenomenon, the emphasis shifted to making these regions attractive for young people and families.

To attract and retain new employees, Mr. Wilt suggested a series of opportunities. These included the allocation of funds in the Redevelopment Assistance Capitol Program (RACP) for housing projects, aiming to mitigate the challenges posed by high construction costs. Additionally, exploring new revenue sources like the State Rainy Day Fund, Hotel Tax, Sales Tax, and Tax Credits was recommended as a means to diversify funding streams for economic development initiatives. Furthermore, establishing a dedicated funding stream for smaller Certified Economic Development Organizations and Economic Development Corporations emerged as a vital proposal to support economic growth at the local level.

Lastly, a historical perspective was shared, highlighting the loss of 7,000 manufacturing jobs in Mercer County from 1996 to 2006. Notably, Mr. Wilt pointed out that the subsequent recovery of these jobs occurred through the organic growth of existing companies rather than the arrival of new ones. This historical context serves as a reminder of the resilience of local businesses, the need to support present employers, and the potential for fostering organic growth within the existing community.

“The long-term viability of rural Pennsylvania depends upon making these areas more attractive for young people and families to live, learn, work and play.”

The Honorable Rod E. Wilt
Executive Director, Penn-Northwest Development Corporation

Jake Rickert, Director of Workforce Development for Penn-Northwest, began his testimony by highlighting their successful Homegrown Initiative, which was started with significant support from Representative Parke Wentling and Senator Michele Brooks. This program, led by young professionals, serves as a career awareness and job placement initiative aimed at retaining local talent. Remarkably, it spans across educational levels, reaching students from 5th grade to master's degree, illustrating a comprehensive approach to nurturing and harnessing local potential for the workforce.

Key partners in this endeavor, such as West Central Job Partnership and PA CareerLink, were highlighted for their imperative role in supporting local businesses. Programs like Internship and On the Job Training, facilitated by these entities, provide reimbursement funds to companies, effectively mitigating the financial barriers associated with bringing on new talent.

Mr. Rickert emphasized the need for Mercer County to leverage its educational institutions, including 12 school districts, 4 colleges, and 2 technical schools, in attracting and retaining talent. Despite the county's annual population decline of eligible students, a notable success story emerged with the Mercer County Career Center, which achieved record high attendance in back-to-back years.

Furthermore, Mr. Rickert emphasized the imperative for Mercer County to explore innovative initiatives to spur population growth in its rural communities and nurture the next generation of Pennsylvania's workforce. Two specific proposals were put forth: the creation of Pennsylvania Rural Opportunity Zones (PROZ), akin to Kansas' PROZ, which offers enticing incentives such as income tax waivers, student loan repayments, and financial incentives to attract skilled workers; and the amendment of the Property Tax or Rent Rebate Program (PTRR) to provide financial assistance for relocation and support young adults within their first three years of college graduation.

“The Commonwealth has the potential to seize the interest in “human capital” by supporting young adults in planting their roots in our rural communities.”

Jake Rickert
Director of Workforce Development, Penn-Northwest Development Corporation

Tracy Mantzell, a Realtor with RE/MAX Select Realty, underscored the inseparable link between effective workforce development programs and the availability of adequate housing. Mercer County, however, faces a significant challenge with a pronounced housing shortage, particularly in the realm of new constructions priced under $250K. This scarcity poses a substantial obstacle to fostering a sustainable and thriving workforce in the region.

The housing shortage is further compounded by the limited options for move-in ready homes. This scarcity of ready-to-occupy homes exacerbates the challenges faced by single-income professional households and working-class families, who grapple with affordability issues. Strikingly, these households find themselves in a financial middle ground—earning too much income for government assistance yet falling short for essential home repairs.

Another critical facet, as highlighted by Ms. Mantzell, is the evolving preferences of current homebuyers, highlighting a shift from the priorities of previous generations. The contemporary buyer, whether single-income professionals or working-class families, seeks low-maintenance options like condos or townhouses. They desire move-in ready homes with modern finishes and expect amenities such as high-speed internet and 200 AMP electrical service for electric vehicle charging stations. Proximity to shopping, restaurants, coffee establishments, and the consideration of solid investment potential and appreciation are paramount in their decision-making process.

To attract and retain the next generation of homebuyers, Ms. Mantzell emphasized the critical alignment of availability, financing options, and amenities—a holistic approach necessary for sustaining a vibrant workforce in Mercer County.

“One key element to developing our local workforce is housing.”

Tracy Mantzell
Realtor, RE/MAX Select Realty

Pennsylvania Employers

Brent Fisher, Director of Operations for Joy Baking Group, outlined their proactive efforts to attract and retain employees in the face of significant challenges. The company has successfully drawn in workers by offering competitive wages, coupled with annual increases above inflation. Recognizing the importance of a varied approach, Joy Baking Group provides best-in-class benefit packages, offers flexible scheduling, and has substantially increased investment in employee training and development, showcasing a commitment to nurturing a skilled and dedicated workforce.

Despite these commendable efforts, Mr. Fisher highlighted a growing challenge stemming from a broader societal shift. A decline in interest and understanding of manufacturing careers has led to a notable increase in the company's turnover rate—from 20% to 50%, particularly among new hires. This trend underscores the urgency of addressing misconceptions and raising awareness about the value and opportunities within the manufacturing sector.

Mr. Fisher emphasized the crucial role of early exposure to manufacturing job opportunities and enhancing awareness of career training in technical skills as vital steps to building a robust local workforce.

Moreover, Mr. Fisher shed light on the broader community-related challenges that hinder the company's ability to retain the future workforce being cultivated in Mercer County. The lack of affordable housing presents a significant barrier, limiting options for young individuals transitioning from living with their parents to homeownership. Additionally, the absence of desired local services and amenities further compounds the challenges of retaining a skilled workforce in the area.

While the company has undertaken commendable efforts to attract and retain employees, the broader societal shifts, coupled with housing and community-related challenges, underscore the importance of collaborative efforts to build a resilient and sustainable local workforce in Mercer County.

“In order to keep or attract workers to the area, they want more than jobs. They want local services, activities, retail, restaurants, and entertainment.”

Brent Fisher
Director of Operations, Joy Baking Group

Michael Walton, CEO of Jamestown Coating Technologies, highlighted both successes and challenges faced by a growing industrial coating industry. Despite experiencing an impressive growth rate of 19.5% over the previous year, well beyond the industry's single-digit norm, and maintaining competitive wages and benefits resulting in high employee satisfaction, recruitment and retention emerged as formidable challenges. External challenges were identified, including the housing shortage and the imperative need for enhanced communication to students about the abundant opportunities in manufacturing jobs. There is a pressing need to combat the prevailing stigma against non-college pathways, and concerted efforts are required to effect changes that can attract diverse talent from outside the region.

Mr. Walton detailed the hope found in the growth of the Mercer County Career Center, indicating a positive shift in student interest towards lucrative trade opportunities. This development not only reflects changing perceptions but also signifies a potential pipeline of skilled workers entering the workforce.

Mr. Walton also underscored an untapped opportunity to increase private sector job training, particularly focusing on sustaining careers in underserved communities. By investing in job training initiatives, the region can foster economic growth and provide meaningful career paths.

An exemplar of success was highlighted in the form of internship programs, supported through CareerLink. These programs, designed to bridge the gap between education and employment, have proven highly effective in recruiting talented individuals from local schools. This successful model not only nurtures local talent but also strengthens the connection between educational institutions and the workforce, establishing a pathway for students to seamlessly transition into meaningful careers.

“The schools need to do a better job of letting young people know that there are good, family-sustaining jobs in manufacturing.”

Michael Walton
CEO, Jamestown Coating Technologies

In conclusion, the hearing’s testimony emphasized the complex interplay of factors in rural workforce development, combining the industry's remarkable growth with persistent challenges in recruitment and retention. The evolving landscape, marked by the growth of the Mercer County Career Center and successful internship programs, suggests that collaborative efforts, improved communication, and targeted investments can propel rural workforce development toward a more vibrant and sustainable future. Challenges such as shifting career perceptions, housing shortages, and a need for private sector job training were consistently highlighted. However, amidst these challenges, promising opportunities emerged through innovative programs, proactive partnerships, and a growing interest in trade opportunities. The overarching theme is clear: a holistic and collaborative approach is essential to overcome obstacles, bridge the skills gap, and build a resilient and thriving rural workforce that will propel these communities toward sustainable economic growth.