SOMERSET – The Somerset Economic Development Council has spent generations working to improve the county’s economy, while at the same time watching a wave of young adults leave the region for jobs in other communities.

The agency unveiled an effort Wednesday aimed at reversing that trend, by surveying middle and high school students countywide for a road map, detailing the type of careers and community they’re looking for.

A survey will also go online in March to get feedback from current and former residents – a move that, ideally, will allow the council to see why people already left and what it would take to lure some of them back, Economic Development Specialist Todd Holsopple said.

If “wants, needs and desires” are compelling young job seekers to leave the region, it’s vital for the Somerset Economic Development Council to identify and understand those ambitions, said Holsopple.

“What we’re looking for is to get insight from our community ... to get a better idea about what people think about our area. What are our strengths and what needs improved,” he said.

Josh Boland, the council’s executive director, agreed.

“If we have a bunch of young, driven students who want to do a job that doesn’t exist here now, it’s incumbent on us to do what we can to bring that kind of business here,” Boland said.

Holsopple developed the framework for the Roadway Survey Project late last year with that idea in mind.

Boland is a self-described “boomerang” who grew up in the area, left and then returned to the region over the past decade.

The pair both joined the Somerset Economic Development Council over the past 18 months and said they recognize they’re dealing with an “exodus” trend that dates back decades.

Census figures estimate Somerset County has lost more than 6,000 people over the past 20 years.

That doesn’t mean it has to continue, Holsopple said.

He said he’s already been meeting with area public school students to guide the survey’s development.

Assuming the region’s 11 schools will support the survey, it would give the Somerset Economic Development Council a “captive audience” of several thousand teens, Holsopple added.

Outreach efforts will be taken to survey the over 18 crowd – local residents and former ones, business leaders and more – between March and May.

“Information gathered from this project will inform future efforts of business outreach and recruitment by the Somerset County Economic Development Council,” Boland said, noting that workforce development initiatives could be modified to suit changing demands. 

“Essentially, we want opinions from those who know Somerset County best as to what they want us to work on bringing to this area.”

Holsopple said he wants the survey’s results to serve as a starting point.

The council is exploring the idea of forming a focus group to delve into some of the report’s take-aways, and perhaps enable the community to have a continued dialogue as efforts get underway to adapt to local priorities, Holsopple said.

“This is just the beginning for this project,” he said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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