Mercer Career Fair Works to Reverse Population Decline

MERCER, Pa. – Students can think of a lot of reasons to leave the area after they graduate from high school.

That’s why organizers of the Mercer County Business and Industry Career Fair on March 29 illustrated for sophomores some of the reasons they should consider staying here.

Jessica Talbert-Kirsch of the Primary Health Network, Kolton Hoffman of Gilbert Risk Solutions and Kaylee Bender of American Hospitality Group shared reasons they love living and working in Mercer County, Pa.

Besides the more obvious reasons of being near family and friends, the three laid out some of the benefits of small-town life, including a low cost of living and an easier route to make a name for yourself. At the same time, Hoffman, who is a risk strategist, noted the area is just an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Although Bender grew up in the Pittsburgh area, graduating from Bethel Park High School with about 500 others, she said when she and her husband started looking for a home between Pittsburgh and Mercer County, they found this area had the best cost of living and was a great place to raise their family.

 “The three C’s I like to say are career, cost and community,” said Bender, who is a sales manager.

She said her company shares her feelings about the importance of a work-life balance.

Hoffman agrees, stating he has worked at the same firm for 12 years and believes it is important to work for a place that aligns with your values and vision. He came back to be near multiple generations of his family. He now has a family of his own and coaches baseball locally.

“There is a lot of opportunity in Mercer County,” Hoffman said. “There are opportunities if you’re college educated. There are opportunities if you’re a skilled tradesman. There are opportunities if you’re a blue-collar laborer. There are opportunities for everyone.”

Primary Health’s Talbert-Kirsch, who traveled extensively during her time in the Army, said it is great to know you can always come back to Mercer County where you will feel at home.

Talbert-Kirsch also has the entrepreneurial spirit, owning a small graphic design and business consultant business. She said her parents both had businesses, one home-based.

 “I love this community and I love this area,” Talbert-Kirsch said. “When I was in high school, I used to think that if I wanted to achieve big things and if I wanted to have the success I saw in my head with the office and the secretary, that I had to move to a big city and get a big, fancy job. I found that just wasn’t the case. You can have a successful career. You can be happy and work for a company that you believe in and that values you right here in this community.”

Mercer County lost about 5,000 people in the past decade, according to the 2020 census, and the county’s median age is getting older. While the percentage of those ages 20-34 grew by 1.2%, those 5-19 decreased by 2.5% and those age 65 and older grew by 4.1%.


Jake Rickert, director of workforce development at Penn-Northwest Development Corp. in Hermitage, points out that the area has lost 1% of its population every year for the past 30 years. With the agency’s Home Grown Initiative, Penn-Northwest is hoping to slow down the exodus.

Laura Kubyako, Dave Burich and Tammy Calderwood of the Mercer County Community Federal Credit Union welcome students to their display.

The initiative holds events for students and young adults and uses Penn-Northwest’s business connections on the economic development side to help them connect, network and find possible careers right here.

“We’re changing the narrative in Mercer County that there is nothing here to offer,” Rickert said.

Rickert was among those who attended the career fair.

The event, organized by the West Central Job Partnership, featured 24 exhibitors showcasing local in-demand jobs, higher education and skilled trade opportunities where about 900 students from more than a dozen high schools were encouraged to see themselves fitting in down the road.

Laurel Technical Institute, which has a main campus in Hermitage and a satellite campus in nearby Sharon, offers tech and career training in a number of fields, including welding, medical, cosmetology, computer and culinary.

Deb Anderson, admissions and community outreach specialist for LTI, said the field is constantly changing, and those with training in the skilled trades will always be able to find a job.

Anderson brought two people from the school with her from the welding program – an instructor and a current student.

“I can stand behind a table and it doesn’t mean anything,” said Anderson. “But when you have somebody, a young kid who can relate to another young kid and say, ‘This is what I do,’ you can really cultivate a future workforce.”

Anderson noted that even if someone plans to use their welding skills for their side hustle, their skills will always make them employable down the road.


Kennedy Catholic students Mari Becker and Abby Rosa, who both expressed an interest in a career in the medical field, spoke at the career fair with Tom Roberts, the executive director of Hope Cat.

Roberts explained to the students they could start in medical assistant or EMT training through Hope Cat and see if they like working in the field before going to a bigger school.

Roberts said a high school graduate can go through the Hope Cat program in less than a year with little to no cost, then work in the field for a year or two before going to nursing school, sometimes with financial assistance from their employer. In less than 10 years, someone could have their college degree in nursing.

 “We’ve got to get kids to realize there’s a lot of other choices besides college that are a good fit, that are cost effective and you can start your career path without having to go far away,” Roberts said.

Amber Blackwell represented Sharon Regional Medical Center at the event.

Mackenzie Fagley, human resource generalist with the Primary Health Network in Sharon, said students choosing to train and work through the organization can also get scholarships.

Not long ago, Fagley said, students would line up to find out how to get into a health care-related field. Now, after COVID, finding the next generation of employees is more difficult.

“The rules have changed,” Fagley said. “It makes us think on our toes more and be a little more creative.”

Erin Giardina, a labor relations coordinator with the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania, was at the event promoting Future Road Builders, a virtual career awareness program.

Future Road Builders provides a chance for students to learn about careers in highway construction and how to apply for the four-year apprenticeship programs.

For those interested in building and maintaining roadways and bridges, Giardina said it is a great way to earn while you learn without student debt and end up with a good job with benefits and pension and the ability to grow with the job. She brought information from six union apprenticeship programs in the area for the students to consider, along with information about starting wages for apprentices that range from about $22 to $33 per hour, plus benefits.

“It’s a really good opportunity, but you do have to like working outdoors,” Giardina said.

“You must have a good attitude and want to build a good career for yourself. You can do that in construction. And there’s always going to be a need. … It’s a field that is growing and always in demand.”

Pictured at top: Mackenzie Fagley of Primary Health Network met with students at the career fair.