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2017-07-14 / Community (County Spotlight)

Fay-Penn focuses on making county workforce competitive

Spotlight on Fayette County
By Spencer Myers

No region in Pennsylvania felt the effects of America’s decline in manufacturing more than the southwest. The story of big corporate manufacturing plants and the steel industry is well-worn by now and interestingly, no longer the main problem facing the area. In fact, something happened that many did not predict. A piece of manufacturing came back.

The only problem is that since the sector had been in decline, the workforce shied away from training in trades that many believed would force them into economic uncertainty. As a result, good-paying jobs have been left empty and the businesses offering them may end up filling them with workers from outside the county.

To gauge how Fayette County is meeting its workforce expectations, Marcellus Business Central spoke with Bob Shark, executive director of the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council. Shark has been with Fay-Penn for almost three years and previously worked for JARI (Johnstown Area Regional Industries) for twelve.

MBC: What is the status of the Mon-Fayette Expressway? How do you think the county can best take advantage of this economic opportunity?

Shark: The northern extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway was recently voted to be put back on the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan thanks in large part of the efforts of our Fayette County Commissioners. Having that connection to I-376 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike will create more opportunities in Fayette County for interstate commerce. Fay-Penn’s University Business Park, for example, is located a short four-minute drive to an on ramp to the Expressway. That kind of access makes prime markets more readily available to businesses located in the Park.

MBC: Fayette County has witnessed a steady decline in population. How has the economy adjusted accordingly?

Shark: Fayette County, regardless of its population size, has the same workforce problem as virtually any other place in the world. Prior to the mid-2000s, there were more qualified workers than jobs across the globe. Now, that ratio has flipped. For the past decade, we have more jobs available than people to fill them. We do our best with the resources available from our schools, the state and our local workforce investment board to work with our employers to get them the resources they need, but it’s a tremendous challenge.

MBC: Is retaining college grads integral to getting population rising again? How have the your organization or other economic leaders worked to keep college grads local?

Shark: Any graduates, whether from a university, college, community college, or trade school, are important to Fayette County’s long term future. We want to retain graduates from local schools, but it’s also important to attract them from outside the area. That influx of diversity and a different way of thinking is important for any region to keep it from stagnating.

To date, Fay-Penn and other organizations such as the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce have offered programs to generate awareness among students about career opportunities here. We and others such as the Community Foundation of Fayette County have also provided scholarships to assist with post- secondary education. Going forward, Fay-Penn is partnering with Penn State’s Fayette campus to open a “LaunchBox” to assist entrepreneurs in starting a businesses with access to Penn State resources. We’re also working with the Innovation Partnership in Pittsburgh to provide interns and apprentices to local businesses to create more job opportunities for our young talent.

MBC: What workforce and economic preparations has Fayette County made to take advantage of the coming Shell ethane cracker plant?

Shark: It doesn’t appear that the ethane cracker plant itself will have significant impact to Fayette County during either its construction or operation. We have very few companies involved. For counties outside the immediate area of the plant, the smart play is to look at attracting manufacturers who can use the downstream product and ensure that shovel-ready sites are available with good access to markets. In that regard, one aspect we can definitely improve upon is Pennsylvania’s business construction permitting process. I’ve offered Fay-Penn’s help to our local Pennsylvania legislators to review and revise our laws to make us more competitive with other states.

MBC: Are there any other major shale gas projects encouraging economic growth in the county?

Shark:The Marcellus and Utica shale industries as a whole have shown a comeback in 2017 after being in a slowdown the previous few years. Gas generation is up even though new wells aren’t opening as fast as they did during the boom earlier in the decade. As far as major projects, DCED recently completed a study that showed good potential for additional crackers to be built in and around Pennsylvania. One of those locations is a bit closer to Fayette County than the Beaver cracker is, so there may be some promise for us in the future.

MBC: Mill Run Wind Energy Center has been operating since 2001. Has there been any interest in the county regarding the development of additional alternative energy?

Shark: I’m not aware of much interest in renewables here, even though wind and solar are garnering more and more market share and producing more energy around the globe. Our coal legacy and proximity to the shale fields seems to have captured most of the attention.

MBC: What will be the biggest challenges and opportunities facing Fayette County in the coming years?

Shark: Workforce issues will continue to dominate here as they will everywhere else, but Fayette County has an advantage in that respect because we have what appeals to a younger demographic. Our abundance of outdoor recreation, low cost of living, and proximity to the culture in Pittsburgh and Morgantown is tough to duplicate. We need to stay the course in continuing to create more diverse career opportunities and spreading the word about living the good life here.

We already have comparatively good infrastructure, available sites, market access, cost-effectiveness and community leadership at our disposal to grow our economy. Although, there’s always room for improvement in those areas. Ultimately, growing our qualified workforce should be our top priority. The quality and quantity of your workers truly is the best example of “If you build it, they will come” when it comes to economic development. .

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