Merriam Webster defines “brain drain” as “a situation in which many educated or professional people leave a particular place or profession and move to another one that gives them better pay or living conditions.”
Because of its sometimes beat-up exterior, its notable former glory and its sometimes poor reputation among locals, some might say Wilkes-Barre experiences a kind of brain drain, in which students attend local universities for four years, graduate, and then leave – not allowing new jobs to develop and not assisting in revitalizing the city.
Danny Lykens, recent Wilkes University graduate and co-founder of business start up Kraken Boardsports, attributes this to a lack of knowledge about the opportunities already in the area.
“People miss out a lot in college. They think ‘OK, I’ll go to class, I’ll get a piece of paper, and I’ll be good’ …they miss out on this incredible networking experience,” he said.
“This area has more people than people realize… if you look hard enough, there’s a lot of different contacts…[Kraken] found so much good professional business help in this area, and it’s been instrumental to us.”
Lykens, a Reading, Pa. local and former engineering student, was fortunate enough to find a job at a local robotics company, as well as successfully continue with his startup. He attributes this to the pursuit of opportunities already offered in the area, rather than an external search.
Bridget Giunta is the director of alumni relations at Wilkes, and in her role she has experienced people both leaving and staying in the area after graduation. She says she doesn’t consider the area itself a factor in graduates’ decisions to leave.
“In my experience, not a lot of recent graduates just dislike the area,” she said. “It seems people go where they have their job…a lot of it comes from internship or job opportunities they may have had here.”
Giunta agrees with Lykens in that she thinks many don’t understand the opportunities already available in the area.
“An important part in the ongoing revitalization of Wilkes-Barre…is making sure everyone is on the same page with the opportunities available,” she said. “It can help reset people’s perception on the area, and could get you thinking about staying here, knowing it’s an up-and-coming city.”
Bridget and Lykens both speak of places like the Innovation and Small Business Development Centers located in downtown Wilkes-Barre, who assist several small, homegrown businesses.
One such place is Wilkes’ own Allan P. Kirby Center for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, which has assisted Lykens as well as other student and business startups. The center’s ultimate goal is to assist new businesses with the help that they need in order to foster growth.
“They were our home when we had no idea what we were doing,” Lykens said, noting that they provided Kraken with an office and made the business “much more liable.”
Since the Kirby Center has been instrumental to helping Kraken Boardsports, those in charge have decided to expand their assistance to all of Wilkes-Barre through a new program called Wilkes-Barre Connect. The concept is simple: whatever Wilkes and the Kirby Center can’t offer — legal services, business insurance, etc. — will be provided by a different branch of the “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
“The idea is to connect all of these services under one umbrella,” Dr. Rodney Ridley, director of the Kirby Center, said, noting that this will allow Wilkes’ individual help to small businesses to be carried through every step of the way; the Small Business Development Center is the beginning, the Kirby Center and Wilkes-Barre Connect are the middle, and when the business needs what Ridley calls “serious capitol,” they can receive loans from the eBay Enterprise office in the Innovation Center.
“You go through all the way, your hand held, without getting dropped,” Ridley said of the program, which is gearing up to launch in late April. He believes this will allow more people to be assisted at once, which in turn will get more ideas into the “entrepreneurial funnel.”
Ridley says the growth of local businesses will help stimulate Wilkes-Barre’s economy, which may prompt people to stay after graduation if jobs become available. His team also hopes to expand and help stimulate the economy of the surrounding regions as well.
“The concept became, ‘why wouldn’t we do it in Scranton? Why wouldn’t we do it in Hazleton?’” Ridley said, adding that if done correctly, Northeastern Pa. could “make some serious noise.”
“We have deals going to Scranton and Hazleton to do the same things and tie it all together to make an entrepreneurial ecosystem that could rival any startup community,” he said.
Giunta additionally thinks places like this are essential and should be utilized by students looking for work.
“I think the more Wilkes invests in forging strategic business partnerships with different industries, the better chance we have to have our students go to those places for work and have the businesses invest back in Wilkes,” she said.
Lykens and his business now reside in the business incubator in the Luzerne bank building. He recently turned down a job at Apple to focus on his startup – a decision he encourages others to mirror when exploring job options.
With Wilkes-Barre Connect slated to officially launch in April to the community, with access to “students with great ideas” in the Fall, Ridley and his colleagues hope to encourage long-term economic growth while developing dreams like Lykens’. The only pieces missing are the people willing to stay local to put the work in.
“There’s great options in the area…don’t let those go away just because you’re chasing a dream. There’s another full track right here, which is a great dream too,” Lykens said. He concluded, laughing: ”If you do something cool enough, the boring job at a really cool company will be there still.”