A rural community with a population of just over 28,000 people, Wyoming County is small but mighty, and this is due in large part to its vision and strategy pertaining to workforce development. A leader in this regard is the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce.
The Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce has been at the forefront of the county’s development efforts since its founding and it continues to advance its mission to serve local business and industry.
“The mission of any Chamber of Commerce is really to help them [local business and industry] grow, to connect them, connect the business owner to the community in which they are trying to do work,” said Gina Suydam, President of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce. One of the most meaningful ways the organization serves its members is through workforce development.
“We as a chamber and our community need to allow our students the opportunities to see our strong workforce, to see that there are sustaining jobs here, to see that there are jobs that are challenging and forward thinking and jobs that give them the ability to be on the forefront of the future of our country in a lot of ways,” Suydam explained.
With an open mind, the organization is doing its part to bridge the gap between industry and education to ensure Wyoming County and its various employers have the resources necessary to grow and remain viable. This is especially true of the Marcellus Shale Play that is being developed.
“We are a small population but I like to think that we’ve been open to change,” said Suydam. “There are certainly areas of Northeastern Pennsylvania that have not readily accepted the natural gas industry to come in and produce and bring the gas up out of the ground to use it. We’re really putting our whole country at a loss when we don’t allow that development. Of course the development needs to be safe, it needs to be environmentally friendly, but I think if our energy dependence as a nation is under our feet that we need to do what we can to responsibly utilize that and allow our country independence.”
The School of Petroleum and Natural Gas at Lackawanna College is certifying students to work in the oil and gas industry, bringing up the next generation of workers, from administrative assistants to safety and engineering professionals to support the growth taking place. With ground breaking on the natural gas project this month, Wyoming County is poised to grow significantly over the next three to five years and thanks to the foresight of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce and its workforce development partners in the region, workforce won’t be a barrier to development, but rather a strategy to be emulated.
Workforce development programs and resources are available at a number of educational institutions in Wyoming County, from the elementary school level to continuing education offerings, to ensure that residents have access to education and training and employers have access to the very best talent.
“Our members need us to help them train the leaders of the future and our chambers are really taking on that initiative and building out leadership programming that will help and encourage employees to speak up and have a voice and say in the company’s direction,” said Suydam.
To address the demand for leadership training, an industry-based program called Leadership Wyoming was established and has since taken off. Eleven participants enrolled the first year, followed by twelve the second year and eighteen this year. In its first year, participants developed a career fair for the Tunkhannock Area School District and surveyed seventh, eighth and ninth grade students about what they want in a career. They brought in industry professionals from the various fields of interest to develop a dialogue with the students and create a more viable connection between education and industry.
“It’s really about community growth – getting to know your community and industries in your community and how you can partner and work with them,” Suydam explained, noting that individuals from across industries are taking advantage of the program, making investments in their businesses and in themselves in doing so.
The Tunkhannock Area School District works closely with the Chamber of Commerce to ensure opportunities exist for the youth in the community. Recently, the three outlying elementary schools in Wyoming County were shuttered in favor of consolidation into one centrally located school. While the move created some controversy, it also opened the door to new opportunities and new ways of thinking about old problems. The Tunkhannock Area School District initiated a seventh grade STEM Academy that, as Suydam described, “is really taking our seventh grade students and teaching them in a new way, teaching them about real world issues and problems and how to solve them.”
One of the academy’s projects is bringing the students closer to elders in the community. When the local nursing home approached the school about an issue impacting its residents, the students were quick to act. Residents, due to degenerative eye disorders and other ailments associated with aging, have a limited ability to read the news. Though they cannot read for themselves, they still want to be up to date on current events. That’s where the students come in.
“They are going to audio record some information for them, reading the local newspaper and recording that so people can still get the news they might not be able to get on their own, so it’s an exciting connection,” said Suydam. “Some of the things, you wouldn’t think seventh graders would normally be helping with but it’s helping them to see real world problems and how they can help to solve them, building their confidence and making them feel part of the community.”
This connectivity was an important part of the reason Suydam returned home to the community she was born and raised in. “I was looking for the opportunity to come back and raise my family in a community that understands community – a community that looks to our children to be the future and gives them opportunities to be that future,” she said.
While the Tunkhannock Area School District boasts woodworking, robotics, welding and other hands-on opportunities for youth, the Susquehanna Career and Technical School and Keystone College support workforce development through the provision of education and training that is relevant to the needs of the local economy.
The Susquehanna Career and Technical School has a number of great programs from healthcare to cosmetology and food service, offering day programs, adult education, evening and online courses. Its commercial driver’s license (CDL) program is addressing one of the strongest workforce needs in the county and the country.
“As we grow, whether it’s in natural gas or manufacturing, we need to get the goods and services to other parts of the country and without those drivers, that can create a big problem for us,” said Suydam. The program will help expedite certification for youth, where students can earn credits to become certified when they are old enough.
Keystone College, meanwhile, has over 40 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the liberal arts and sciences. As a student-centered and career-oriented institution, its Professional Development Institute has successfully developed industry-focused workforce development initiatives, credential coursework, upskilling and even leisure programs.
Wyoming County also has the support of the region through the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission, an economic and workforce development entity that has positioned career counselors in the local school districts to ensure that career guidance and support are present at every level.
All of these examples prove that Wyoming County is working collaboratively with all levels of education and government to take a comprehensive approach to workforce development that will ensure that career opportunities are available for the long term and that the needs of the local economy are being met. And, as the needs of the local economy change, the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce evolves its strategy. The Proctor and Gamble Mehoopany Paper Products Plant is a longstanding employer in the county and is a perfect example of how workforce needs can change with time and how workforce development strategies need to adapt to changing conditions.
In the mid-1980s, 80 percent of the local workforce at the Proctor and Gamble Mehoopany Paper Products Plant only had a high school diploma and today, 80 percent hold some form of post-secondary education and certification. As Jose de los Rios of the Mehoopany environmental team and public relations manager explained, “The necessary skills of the workforce at the plant have changed over those years from a very manual operation to a highly automated operation,” as is the case across a number of industries and sectors in the digital age of automation.
Despite changes to its workforce needs, thanks to organizations like the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce and its partners in workforce development, Proctor and Gamble remains profitable, provides high-paying jobs for residents and further proves that Wyoming County is a place where businesses and residents alike are given opportunities to thrive.