For a regional initiative set on attracting young professionals to the area, “connection” is the key word.
“Be Here,” created by program manager Ashley Cowles at the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce, has been working to attract and retain residents since its launch in January. The initiative works to connect people with job opportunities and recreational activities in the area.
“‘Be Here’ started because we were meeting young professionals and new people to the region who had a positive perspective on the Venango County area not necessarily echoed by residents,” said the chamber’s executive director, Susan Williams, said.
Williams said many rural areas experience a decline in population, but “Be Here” is a proactive response to the departure of residents.
“We felt like it was a story that needed to be told. We want to inspire residents to share messages of optimism with people here and those who have left,” Williams said. “The story is not necessarily unique, but our reaction to it is unique.”
Cowles provides opportunities for professionals to connect through social forums while encouraging businesses to meet the changing needs of younger demographics.
“We want people to become physically, mentally and socially invested in being here,” she said.
After conducting a survey and focus groups last summer, Cowles said many current and former residents believe there are few opportunities in the region for personal growth and success.
But Cowles said that is not the case.
“We want to squash the perception that settling in the area is considered settling and that you aren’t successful,” Cowles said.
And, Williams said, rural areas allow professionals to stand out in their fields and step into higher positions more quickly than in bigger cities.
“There are more open opportunities in smaller communities than in bigger cities. The timeframe and network is much more efficient,” Williams said.
A related chamber program, Future Leaders and Entrepreneurs Exchange, serves professionals under age 40. Group members meet to network with each other and seasoned professionals in casual settings.
“We work hard to make sure we’re engaging young professionals,” Williams said.
Cowles recently has been speaking with students, dislocated workers and human resources managers to promote local opportunities.
In speaking at high schools, Cowles said she has been asking students not to rule out living in Venango County after graduation.
“We want to place an importance on attracting young people because they are our future,” Cowles said.
Williams said many high school students believe they will leave the area after graduating due to few job opportunities and little in the way of leisure activities.
But many businesses are hiring in the area, Williams said, in industries like manufacturing, health care and retail.
“Employers find it challenging to fill jobs due to a lack of skilled workers and high turnover rates,” Williams said. “We’re encouraging students to learn skills that can be transferable to various jobs.”
Another complaint Williams and Cowles heard from young people has to do with the lack of diversity in the area.
“We want to embrace and encourage diversity,” Williams said.
Cowles said she wants to visit more high schools and speak with teachers and students along with adding more programs and forums.
“The most important thing is to be connected to people within your community who can help you most,” Cowles said. “To those who choose to make this region their home, we want to make it the best it can be.”
For more information, visit beherevenango.org.