Penn-Northwest Looks to Bolster Mercer’s ‘Homegrown’ Workforce

HERMITAGE, Pa. — Penn-Northwest Development Corp. has been about facilitating corporate expansion in Mercer County, helping its more than 100 member entities.

Now, it’s about helping those same corporations find employees and retaining talent in this area of western Pennsylvania.

Penn-Northwest’s Homegrown initiative is a workforce development program created to aid highly skilled and talented young adults find a lasting career in Mercer County. Executive Director Rod Wilt says at any given time between 1,200 to 2,000 jobs are posted in Mercer County. The initiative seeks to raise awareness to those jobs and connect recent graduates to local employment opportunities, similar to The Business Journal’s Brain Gain initiative, Wilt says.

There are more than 60 people involved in this initiative, and about a couple dozen employers involved in the project to dissolve the gap between employer and employee. Recent graduates from Butler County Community College @LindenPointe, Penn State Shenango, Grove City College and Thiel College are part of the first phase of Homegrown.

“We do have this disconnect between jobs that are readily available, the community understanding what those jobs are and who are the right people to talk to about those jobs,” Wilt says.

Penn-Northwest is working closely with West Central Job Partnership for Homegrown, which is being led by Jake Rickert, project manager for Penn-Northwest. He’s working with 18 young professional volunteers to guide graduates to potential employers or other influential members of the Mercer County community.

Rickert says there are 5,000 students in the county at any given time, but about 1,000 people leave every year – a trend that’s been going on for more than three decades.

“We really wanted to address that and stop it entirely,” Rickert says. “We want to see a demographic and economic shift in Mercer County.

“We created this program to help these educated, young adults find a meaningful career in Mercer County.”

Penn-Northwest’s program is focused on workforce development in the manufacturing industry. Outreach efforts are funded in part by a $200,000 Department of Community and Economic Development grant that was extended until June 2024 to promote Mercer County as a place to live and work.

Promoting manufacturing jobs is usually a head-scratcher for most college graduates, who wonder how business, corporate communications, science, technology, engineering or mathematics majors fit into manufacturing, Wilt says. Once the graduates see how things operate, they are interested in making that transition into human resources, accounting, marketing or other departments in these various companies, he says.

“I think that’s part of the discussion that we want to start having with this Homegrown initiative, as well as getting our manufacturers to look at what I call more of these hybrid positions that would be attractive to keeping college students here,” Wilt says.

Greenville, Pa. native Rickert left for the United States Army when he was 18 years old. He’s looking to find military veterans in the area who want to work in Mercer County.

An affordable education, good quality of life and connections were here when he came to Mercer County, Rickert says. He eventually enrolled at Penn State Shenango on the GI Bill. Rickert says employers are fond of hiring veterans.

“We’ll take the strong attributes they have and place them in good careers right here in the county,” he says.

Penn-Northwest has been working with an intern from Thiel College, who is working on his master’s degree in business administration. The intern is already receiving a handful of interviews as a result of Homegrown.

“We’re trying to help him find his perfect role,” Rickert says.

Penn-Northwest is applying for a $5 million grant for the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Good Jobs Challenge, which will allow the organization to expand Homegrown’s focus to educational entities like Mercer County Career Center, Wilt says.

The first program is operating within the existing charter of the career center, opening up enrollment to people who are a year removed from high school and didn’t avail themselves to these offerings of MCCC.

“It’s more about getting more kids exposed to that training so they’re more employable,” Wilt says.

In addition, Penn-Northwest will be encouraging women to enter the trades and helping its workforce partner Pennsylvania Cybersecurity Center.

“We think those are also going to be catalysts for keeping people in Mercer County, keeping them employed here,” Wilt says.

Eventually, Wilt wants to focus this initiative at the middle and high school levels and get them thinking about working local careers. Rickert says these children too often hear what Pittsburgh, Erie and Cleveland have to offer, but why not Mercer County?

“We want to show these kids their growth is not limited here,” he says. “They can succeed in whatever avenue they want to pursue.”

Those companies or young people in Mercer County who want to take advantage of Homegrown initiative can call Penn-Northwest at 724 662 3705 or contact the organization at Penn-Northwest.com.

Pictured: Penn-Northwest’s Rod Wilt and Jake Rickert.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.