Young Professionals Help Shenango Valley ‘Thrive’

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — When Sherris Moreira assumed the role of executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce in 2016, she recognized that its young-professionals group needed to be refreshed.

The challenge, as she saw it, was connecting young professionals to business leaders in a meaningful way. To do so would require breaking from the typical strategy of sitting in a boardroom and saying, “Here’s what our young people need,” but not bringing them to the table to hear them out, she says.

“Older leaders really want to help our young professionals. But we say we want to help them and don’t invite them to the table,” Moreira says. “Now, we need to not just invite them to the table. We’re going to give them the table.

“Young professionals don’t want to just see the change. They want to be the change and they want to get engaged to be a part of that,” she continues.

Through conversations with Riley Atterholt, development manager for JCL Development in Sharon, Pa., Thrive Shenango Valley was born earlier this year. 

While the chamber supports the group by facilitating events and connecting its membership to area employers, Thrive is completely operated by a group of 15 to 20 young professionals who live and work in the Shenango Valley.

Most of the members are younger than 30 and encompass a wide range of professions, including insurance, nonprofit and health care, Atterholt says. While many of the members were born and reared in the Shenango Valley, others are transplants who recognize positive change in the region, he says. 

“They see movement and progress. And while it may be moving slower than some of us locals would like to see, they see this area is on the cusp of something,” Atterholt says.

That “something” is a sense of optimism and buy-in from the community that is kicking into gear with initiatives in downtown Sharon and the city of Hermitage, he says. Their willingness to collaborate and openness to new ideas is something the transplants “just don’t see anywhere else,” and will benefit Thrive Shenango Valley as it works to play a key role in future development, he says.

While Thrive isn’t trying to push an agenda per se, its immediate goals are twofold.

First, the organization looks to spread the word about its initiatives while connecting with other young professionals and students in the region, he says. It’s starting by developing an online presence with a Facebook page and website at ThriveSV.com.

In addition, Thrive plans to host pop-up events and cocktail hours to connect with young professionals and students. The intent is to raise awareness of economic development initiatives that are producing results, companies that are hiring and career opportunities that maybe haven’t been thought of before.

Paige Nealer, director of marketing and advertising for The Nugent Group in Sharon, and Courtney Davis, sales manager for Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton, Sharon, are members of Thrive helping to get the word out. 

In addition to area young professionals, Thrive works to connect with high school graduates and college students “to see what they want in a community and try to match that,” Nealer says. The group believes working to meet the needs of young people will keep them working in the Shenango Valley and the region, she says.

Quality of life and having things to do are among the most common interests that younger people voice, Nealer says. 

Thrive looks to address those needs by coordinating with parks systems and downtown organizations to develop recreational opportunities, as well as attract more restaurants to downtown areas, she says.

Thrive also looks to serve as a conduit between young professionals and employers to help raise awareness of what young professionals are looking for in a potential employer.

“Growth opportunities are really big, especially with businesses,” Nealer says. “People don’t want to stay in these entry-level jobs.”

That type of communication is critical to ending the notion that students must leave the area to get properly educated and employed, Atterholt says. Leading that conversation is the group’s second goal.

“Generationally, there’s been a conversation that if you want a job, if you want a good education, you need to leave,” he says. “You need to go away to school. So get your education and get a job somewhere else.”

While that conversation has waned in the last few years, “I still think it exists to a larger extent,” Atterholt says. As a result, students believe there is no opportunity for them in the area.

To address that issue, Atterholt hopes Thrive can communicate employment and career opportunities with the students to whom it speaks. To get the ball rolling, the group is putting together surveys and questionnaires to send to area employers for their input on what they’re looking for in potential employees. Atterholt wants Thrive to serve as a mechanism for talent attraction and retention.

“Engage us. Ask us, as the demographic you’re trying to attract, ‘What do you want to see where you live?’ ” Atterholt says. “Let us be a facilitating resource to communicate some of that info along as you approach your hiring methods.”

The Shenango Valley chamber has been “a massive support” in this endeavor by advocating for Thrive among business owners and “helping us get in front of those businesses,” he says.

For the most part, established companies and organizations are willing to collaborate to focus on the future, says the chamber’s Moreira. However, when business owners ask the chamber about engaging young professionals to attract and retain them, there is “a little bit of fear of the changes that have to be made to do so,” she says.

Whether it’s being more flexible with work hours, allowing employees to sometimes work from home or occasionally volunteer hours back into the community, business owners need to learn how to adjust so they can accommodate the next generation, Moreira says.

And if they truly want to succeed in attracting and retaining talent, there’s no choice in the matter, she adds, because young professionals will move to the culture that suits them best.

“The old-school mentality is that work should be from 9 to 5,” she says. “As the older generations, we have to get out of the way a little bit. And sometimes we’re a bit reluctant to let go.”

In the next few months, the chamber will amplify its efforts to connect young professionals to the business community. 

Thrive and the chamber look to hold coffee and conversation events every other month and invite area business and economic leaders to meet with the group. Other initiatives include networking opportunities to connect young professionals with companies that are hiring

“The leaders are excited to have the opportunity to share some of their wisdom, tricks of the trade,” Moreira says. “And it’s a great way to connect the young professionals with the leaders in the community.”

Pictured: Paige Nealer and Courtney Davis represented Thrive Shenango Valley at the Rising Rust Belt summit in early October.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.