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STAFF PHOTO/BROOKE WILLIAMS Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute at Wilkes University, was the speaker of January’s Business Series Luncheon through the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce.

Teri Ooms anticipates that the region will deal with a “workforce challenge unlike anything we’ve faced before” over at least the next two decades.

But this challenge isn’t specific to northeastern Pennsylvania, she said.

As the baby boomer generation retires, fewer workers of subsequent generations are moving up the workforce pipeline to replace them, meaning the region will need to compete with others across the country for employees.

“The areas that succeed in attracting and retaining the workforce are the ones with the most economic strength,” said Ooms, executive director of The Institute at Wilkes University. “We need to start thinking differently as employers and as a region about our future.”

Last week, Ooms shared this message with attendees of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Series Luncheon at Keystone College.

The Institute, an economic and applied research center, is affiliated with 13 institutions of higher education and the regional business community.

Ooms presented data for the region, including Wyoming County, while analyzing economic trends and their impact on businesses.

To face this workforce challenge, she said employers should acknowledge how upcoming generations differ from previous generations and think “outside of the box” about how to attract them.

For example, younger generations generally prefer jobs with an even work and personal life balance, and they aren’t necessarily concerned about longevity, Ooms said.

However, it isn’t job opportunities alone that attract employees to a region, she said. People also care about what the surrounding community has to offer, such as greenspaces.

“That will require governments and nonprofits and all of the other sectors to work together to focus on improving the quality of life in the community,” she said.

Ooms also shared employment trends for Wyoming County. Total employment in Wyoming County has historically been slightly less than the state and nation, while unemployment has been higher.

From October 2018 to October 2019, the unemployment rate in the county rose from 4.7 to 5.2 percent. During the same time frame, U.S. unemployment declined from 4.9 to 3.7 percent.

However, she said what matters when looking at unemployment rates is the total labor force and number of people employed. When these numbers improve, “it’s a win.”

“Over the past two years, that has been the case,” Ooms said. “We’re seeing actual job growth and more people entering the labor force.”

Counties in the region tend to have smaller average annual wages than the U.S., with Wyoming County at $48,839 and the U.S. at $57,025. The state average is around $52,000, she said.

In a one-year period, she said wages in Wyoming and Luzerne counties grew faster than the nation.

“We’re going to continue to see more of this over the next several decades because we have to catch up,” she said. “In order to remain economically viable in northeastern Pennsylvania, this is an area where we have to be more competitive in order to retain more workers.”

Ooms also touched on industry trends, noting that wind turbine service technicians, solar photovoltaic installers, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and medical assistants have the fastest projected employment growth in Wyoming County.

The gross domestic product in Wyoming County has also been growing faster than all of northeastern Pennsylvania over the last decade, she said. The GDP was around $1.6 billion in 2018. 2019 numbers are not yet available.

Ooms concluded that the region has been on an “upward trajectory” since coming out of the last recession, and there’s no reason to believe it cannot continue.

She encouraged employers to have a plan moving forward to meet the regional workforce challenge, such as connecting with schools to build a workforce pipeline.

“Workforce needs to be in the forefront of everybody’s minds regardless of what sector you represent in the business community,” Ooms said.

Gina Suydam, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said Ooms provided great insight. For Suydam, it’s exciting to see the growth and potential for upcoming students, and she hopes employers could heed Ooms’ advice.

“They need to look at those unemployment rates, the cost of living, and the current salaries they’re offering, and see how they can view all of these things as a whole to make their positions more enticing to the upcoming workforce,” Suydam said.