HERMITAGE, Pa. – Jake Rickert is confident that young people fresh out of high school, trade school or college don’t have to look far for job opportunities. In fact, several have found their calling right in their backyard – helped by a workforce development program launched in February of last year.
Rickert is director of workforce development for Penn-Northwest Development Corp. and director of the Homegrown Initiative – an effort to connect young people with jobs in Mercer County, Pa.
He recalls one student from Thiel College now pursuing her MBA degree who also worked as an intern at Penn-Northwest. Initially, the student aspired to work in the nursing home industry but decided that wasn’t the best fit.
“She moved on and now is working at [The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center] and she is the first student to kind of get the residency up here with UPMC doing her MBA program,” says Rickert. “She is shadowing right under their COO [chief operating officer].”
Rickert says the student is just one of many that the Homegrown Initiative has supported since the initiative was launched in February of 2022.
“Penn-Northwest looked at the economic development quadrants here in Mercer County and one of the things we noticed is we are suffering from population loss and a brain drain,” he says. “We wanted to try to retain and attract young adults to our area and help plug them into our workforce.”
Rickert says the Homegrown Initiative is all about connecting young adults leaving high schools, trade schools and colleges with local jobs. It is run entirely by volunteers 35-years-old and younger, known as the Future Leaders.
“Our goal is population growth,” he says. “We lose about 1% of our population annually. We want to bring that to zero, and then from there, increase our population.”
The initiative started with four people at its launch, Rickert says. It now has about 30 young adult volunteers.
“Live, learn, work and play” are the four major areas to look at in any community, Rickert says.
Mercer County’s “learn” category is strong because of the five local colleges. Rickert says a lot of “work” opportunities are also available.
“Some of the areas we lack – our ‘live’ area needs some help,” he says. “We have a housing shortage. We are really low on our housing quantity and also our ‘play.’ There is a narrative out there that Mercer County doesn’t have fun things to do.”
Rickert says about eight young adults go through the program each month.
“We are closing down on our first batch of 100 young adults helped,” he says. “Our goal is either internships or getting them full-time jobs.”
Rickert hopes to continue to increase those numbers as the initiative’s name grows.
Penn-Northwest has about 185 members. Young adults are sent to explore multiple businesses depending on their skills.
“I know one girl in particular – we have sent her out to about 15 businesses,” he says. “It’s a nice resource for these young adults to say, ‘Where do I find success here?'”
The state-funded program started off with about $200,000 obtained through the efforts of state Sen. Michele Brooks and state Rep. Parke Wentling. “It has since then been pushed up to $300,000 and we’re in the pursuit of another $200,000,” Rickert says.
The Homegrown Initiative has been focusing on career placement. It now plans to start working with high schools to create career awareness.
“Now we have a nice pipeline to help these young adults from the time they are in ninth [grade] all the way until they are done with their education, and be there to support them, give them advice and lastly, place them in a career,” he says.
The Future Leaders operate under three committees: youth engagement, media marketing and finance.
Fun social events are also arranged for those in the program.
“Every time we have a social event, we want to do it locally and make sure we are promoting our local small businesses as well,” says Katie Moldovan, chair of the youth engagement committee.
The first event was an informal free networking event to launch the brand at The Corinthian Banquet Hall and Event Center in downtown Sharon. It was attended by 135 young professionals.
Two weeks later, a St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl took place. Moldovan says the 100 available slots quickly sold out.
Moldovan led a Kentucky Derby party for the final event in spring. She says it was another successful sellout with around 100 attendees.
“That has been my part,” she says. “Doing different things that you usually see in big cities that you don’t necessarily see here. You can still have fun. You don’t need to go to Pittsburgh or Cleveland to do it.”
Moldovan says her part has been showcasing what Mercer County has in its own backyard.
“It’s exciting,” she says. “There is a lot that has happened in a short amount of time.”
Moldovan says the group has quickly gained more recognition.
“A lot of the feedback that we received about why people moved is because they can’t find good jobs, because of the housing market and then because there isn’t anything to do,” she says.
The struggle felt personal to Moldovan, who is originally from Mercer County. She says she experienced many of the same issues when she first moved back eight years ago from a bigger city.
“When I got involved with the group, I wanted to get involved in that fourth pillar of ‘play’ and focus on having social engagements where people can get out and have some fun,” she says.
The volunteering experience has been very rewarding, Moldovan says. “It gives you a new appreciation for home,” she says.
Delaney Lantz, Homegrown volunteer and youth engagement committee member, is an attorney at Evans, Garvey, Lackey & Ochs.
Lantz got involved after hearing about the initiative through a networking event. Now she helps plan the organization’s events and outreach.
“We recently helped out at WaterFire [Sharon].We volunteered there and then we planned multiple events throughout this entire year,” she says. “We are trying to get young professionals engaged in the community.”
Lantz says the Homegrown Initiative is always looking for more Future Leader volunteers.
“We are always looking for people to help,” she says. “We just want people who are positive about the community.”
She mostly works with people who already live and work in the area and are in the age 21-40 age group.
“[We work with] anybody who is living or working in this area that’s looking for fun things to do,” she says. “We’ve done bar crawls and we did a Kentucky Derby party – just trying to do some fun things to give back to the community.”
Lantz says since she didn’t grow up in the area, the program was a good opportunity for her to make friends.
“It’s important because it is hard to make friends as adults – especially young working adults that might not be from this area and didn’t grow up here,” she says.
“They don’t have their connections from their friends back home. It’s to be able to give them a place to make friends and connections.”
More information can be found at HomegrownMC.com.