Staying in area after college may not be option for many

Last updated: May 31. 2014 11:06PM - 5545 Views
By - mguydish@civitasmedia.com

Wilkes University nursing major seniors Leigh Gerardi of Moosic, Lisa Yumen of Danville and Emily Christian of Northumberland talk about their plans after graduation during a commencement practice
Wilkes University nursing major seniors Leigh Gerardi of Moosic, Lisa Yumen of Danville and Emily Christian of Northumberland talk about their plans after graduation during a commencement practice
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Graduating and looking for a job in Luzerne County?

Your best bet: Cashier. Second best bet: Retail salesperson. Keep going down the list; with few exceptions, the fastest growing occupations around here are in low-paying, low-skill jobs.

Or you can scan the state’s “High Priority Occupations” list for the county, an attempt “to align workforce training and education investments with occupations that are in demand by employers, have higher skill needs and are most likely to provide family sustaining wages,” according to the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Of 2,202 projected annual openings in 111 high priority occupations ranging from accountants to welders, 1,419 of them — 64.4 percent — generally require no more than a high school degree, valuing on-the-job training more.

So, with Luzerne County colleges and universities having conferred some 2,400 degrees and certifications this spring, the odds look bleak that many graduates will be staying here to launch a career. The statistics suggest there just aren’t enough jobs around.

Leave to succeed?

“If you’re not willing to move, you’ve got to take what you can get,” said Carolyn Yencharis Corcoran, of Misericordia University’s Insalaco Center for Career Development. “I would honestly hope people looking for a position would not be looking within a 10- or 15-minute driving radius. I would hope they would considering surrounding counties. There is only so much offered in each county.”

In fact, she encourages students to be “career pioneers. Whenever you’re looking at a career, you want to be open to moving geographically.” Even if the ultimate goal is to work here, you may benefit from getting experience somewhere out there.

In the last few years, teaching has become one profession increasingly requiring such a move, she noted. Pennsylvania public schools have shed tens of thousands of jobs from tight education budgets under Gov. Tom Corbett, and graduates are finding it necessary not only to move out of county, but out of state.

“It’s not just teaching,” Corcoran said. “It’s other majors as well, business, technology. In order to gain the experience you need, sometimes you need to go far from home.”

Downward trend

King’s College Office of Career Planning Director Chris Sutzko echoed some of that sentiment. “I do think the students who limit themselves to looking at a narrow job search area like the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes Hazleton) are going to have a tougher time,” he said. “It’s been in a downward trend since the end of industrial revolution.”

The fact that Luzerne County has many colleges, often considered a big plus for the region, can exacerbate the problem, Wilkes University Director of Career Services Carol Bosack Kosek added.

“With all the schools, there are so many good graduates with bachelor’s degrees competing for fewer jobs, and employers can be incredibly selective.”

The great recession didn’t help.

Pennsylvania CareerLink Specialist Angelo Salvatore was blunt in an assessment prior to a media conference regarding a Crestwood High School “employability” program. “For the last four years, the job market around here has been brutal for some people.”

State statistics paint a particularly glum picture for some job sectors:

• From February 2005 to February this year n Luzerne County, the information sector has lost 40 percent of its jobs.

• Manufacturing dropped from 34,200 to 27,300, or 20 percent.

• Hospital employment, one of the strongest local sectors, dropped from 11,000 to 9,100, or 17.3 percent.

• Of 30 sectors tracked in state data, 20 saw decreases in jobs in Luzerne County.

The biggest growth? Notice all those distribution centers popping up in industrial parks? They are part of the booming transportation, warehousing and utilities sector, rising from 13,000 to 18,700, a whopping 43.8 percent.

The bright side

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.

On the state top 25 list of fastest growing local occupations, registered nurse is fourth, office supervisor is 17th, accountant and auditor is 18th, and elementary and secondary school teacher are 23rd and 24th, respectively, despite cuts in recent years.

“Health care is definitely one of those local industries that continues to grow,” Corcoran said. “We have many employers actively seeking students on our campus.

“Accounting, business administration, business management, those types of positions are being recruited as well,” she continued. “Another industry mentioned here now and then is the mining industry, oil and gas. And they are looking for a wide range of skills. It could be business major or chemistry major.”

Sutzko agreed, suggesting some employers have hit bottom and are starting to hire back, including school districts and financial institutions. “Finance and accounting were probably the hardest hit in the recession, but they were probably the quickest to come back,” he said. Physics is another growing market locally.

“Those industries are interesting because they do true recruiting,” Sutzko said. “They are very proactive in bringing in new talent.”

Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development Executive Director Terri Ooms put a more positive spin on the increased demand for college graduates locally.

“I went to a couple job websites and did some broad searches for Wilkes-Barre and Scranton,” Ooms said. “Business management, professional positions, manufacturing, things like that.”

She deliberately screened out “production type jobs like general warehousing, entry level positions.”

“I came up with a list of jobs, pages and pages and pages,” Ooms said. “I am sure they all aren’t as great as some first sound, but it appears to me there is a rise in opportunities for the first time, I would have to say, in at least three or four years, for the college grad.”

“If you have an engineering degree there are incredible opportunities,” she added. And the options are broadening. “Some are manufacturing firms, some may be construed primarily as defense contractors , but they are hiring.”

Couple that with recent population data that not only showed Luzerne County seeing a net increase in population for years, but seeing more middle- and upper-middle income than lower-income families move in, and the news is upbeat, Ooms said.

When die is cast

Of course, for newly minted graduates their choice of profession has been made years earlier with the choice of a major. With college debt in tow, getting a job is a necessity for most.

Awaiting commencement practice earlier in May, Wilkes University nursing students Lisa Yumen and Emily Christian shrugged off the need to go elsewhere. Both had expected jobs in the Geisinger Health Care System, but found themselves graduating during a hiring freeze by the local employer.

“I’m going to Moses Taylor in Scranton,” Christian, of Northumberland, said.

“Evangelical Hospital in Lewisburg,” Yumen, offered. And yes, they both would prefer to return closer to home, but acknowledged that ambition has to wait. “I’ll get the work experience and maybe move back some day,” Yumen said, exhibiting that “career pioneer” attitude Corcoran recommended.

Leigh Gerardi of Moosic, an adult learner who decided to change careers and get her nursing degree, conceded she may have to commute a bit more than she currently does in a social worker position there, but she doesn’t expect it to be a big change.

“I’m hoping for a job in Scranton,” she said.

Can it change?

Is Luzerne County, or for that matter the wider region, doomed to a perpetual brain drain, with college graduates forced to leave the area to get a job?

The first problem, Sutzko said, is assuming you need a college degree to get a good job.

“College for everyone is a bad policy,” he said. “No one ever asks the question “why are you going to college? You don’t have to go to college.”

While it’s his job to help college students succeed upon graduation, Sutzko said the biggest part of that success is passion for what they are doing.

“I joke with students and say I have no idea what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Sutzko said. “I love what I do, but that might change. I need to be proactive in seeking opportunities that challenge me and engage me and my passion.”

State data show many of those high priority occupations requiring only on-the-job training pay a livable wage, averaging more than $36,000 for those requiring short or medium training, such as industrial truck driver and machine maintenance, to more than $46,000 for jobs requiring long-term training like diesel engine specialists and real estate sales agents.

But can we create a county that draws college graduates in rather than sending them out?

There are no easy answers, Kosek said, but an important factor in trying to lure companies to the area is to keep the aspirations of graduates in mind.

“We need to keep attracting good organizations that have some challenging positions. Most students, when I talk to them, they say they’d like a nice salary, but they just want a challenge. They say ‘I’ve gone to school all these years and I have this knowledge and drive and I want to be able to use it.’ ”

Ooms believes many of the key elements are in place, including a rich college environment and rapidly improving health care sector, but other factors get too little attention.

“There are quality of life factors that are important to individuals” looking to locate a business.

“The quality of our K-12 education system is extremely important,” and while there are some great schools in the area, there’s room for improvement, she said.

Ooms also cites the little things like appearance.

“Maintaining our communities is really big,” she said. “Weed abatement, sidewalks, nice homes, attractive gateways into the community. Aesthetics do play a roll.”

This is one area regional cooperation can make a big difference.

“We need to buy into the fact that we need some help and maybe we could do it more effectively working together. Everybody wants to look good and be safe, and regional cooperation may be the answer.”

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