Family, cost, and community: What keeps young people in Pennsylvania

People meet for a monthly design critique meetup at Coalwork, a co-working space in Scranton. (Colin Devroe/Flickr)

Pennsylvania is getting grayer by the day. This week on the Capital-Star, we’re exploring why young people are staying and leaving the commonwealth — and what the state can do to keep them. Have a story to tell? Email us.

Mark Yankowski has spent most of his life in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania. He attended college in Wilkes-Barre, just 15 minutes from his hometown.

While the 31-year-old Yankowski, who works for a home construction company, has stayed put, at least half of his friends haven’t.

Yankowski doesn’t overthink their choice to leave. He figures familiarity breeds scorn.

“It does not matter what area of the country, you always hear about [the] negatives first from people about the location: ‘This sucks, this is bad, this is the worst,’” he said. “It’s not just here. It’s everywhere.”

When he looks around him, in both the Wyoming Valley or across the state, he sees some of the same attractions pulling millennials to places outside Pennsylvania  — like burgeoning food scenes or easy access to the outdoors.

But a bougie new coffee joint or a dog-friendly hiking trail hasn’t been enough to keep many young people from fleeing to California, Ohio, or Massachusetts.

FULL COVERAGE: The Capital-Star’s Brain Drain Series

The data is somewhat contradictory. Nearly half of the people who left the commonwealth in 2016 were between 18 and 34, according to a report from Penn State’s Pennsylvania State Data Center.

But between 2010 and 2017, the state’s population of 20- to 34-year-olds actually grew by 5.7 percent, per another analysis from the center.

What is indisputable is that, on a whole, the state’s population is graying. Pennsylvania’s median age is 40.7 — compared to a national median of 37.8 — according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. It’s been on the rise since 2000.

The thought of losing more young people as boomers leave the workforce has elected officials pitching ideas, on the campaign trail and in the Capitol, about how to keep young people in the state. In his most recent budget address, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a grant program for state community college graduates who stay in Pennsylvania.

But what’s really keeping millennials in Pennsylvania? People in that age bracket cited a cheap cost of living, familial connections, and a chance to be a distinct part of a tight-knit community in interviews with the Capital-Star.

Kathryn Bondi is a 30-year-old graphic designer who lives in Scranton. Born and raised in the Lehigh Valley, she saw her dad, a New Jersey native who continued to commute into the state for work, “get chewed up and spit out by the machine.”

“[His work] was just so corporate,” Bondi said. “There wasn’t an opportunity to affect things on the local level.”

She got her degree at Marywood University in Scranton then joined a small start-up that, over the course of a few years, gained a national reach. Bondi also joined a young professionals group organized by the local chamber of commerce.

Staying in Scranton, Bondi’s found a chance to build a meaningful life where she can work for her own dreams, not a Fortune 500 company.

“What you do can help make that community a better place to live,” she said of her work.

Seth Robbins had the chance to pursue a big opportunity after graduating from Lock Haven University in Clinton County: working in ticket sales for the National Collegiate Athletic Association in Indianapolis.

He moved to the Hoosier State and worked for the NCAA for a little more than half a year. Then, his desire to come back to Pennsylvania to be closer to his family intersected with a dream job offer from Penn State.

Robbins is now 27 and a mortgage officer in his native Cumberland County. There, he’s found a fast-growing region where he can put down roots and enjoy what other nearby cities, like Lancaster, have to offer.

“If I went somewhere else where it was a lot smaller, then I could see myself getting the itch to leave [for] somewhere bigger, but you can find that within Pennsylvania itself,” Robbins said.

Kara Luzik Canale once dreamed of living in a big city like Washington, D.C. or New York. But after doing the math, the 29-year-old Dauphin County native realized it wasn’t the best option.

“I’m still looking for somebody to show me a place with everything we have in Central Pa. with a better cost of living,” said Canale, who is vice president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber.

Of course, not every region of Pennsylvania has a burgeoning millennial metropolis, be it Lancaster or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, as Luzerne County’s Yankowski notes.

But the low price, relatively short hop to pricier cities, and proximity to plentiful hills and forests means that he sees staying in Pennsylvania, and specifically Wilkes-Barre, as a chance to invest and take risks.

The region that has seen better days — but he feels a rebound could be just around the corner.

“Every boomtown started from nothing or from a couple shacks,” Yankowski said. “It’s going to take the right couple businesses to kinda kick start it to give other people a reason to come in.”

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