BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Shortly after relocating to the Lehigh Valley from North Carolina, Lindsay and Chris Cardenas recall the night the gas tank was on empty as they followed their smartphones looking for a gas station.
One recommendation was actually a repair garage. Another was closed.
“As it turns out, there was a Wawa five minutes away,” Lindsay Cardenas said. “But we didn’t know what a Wawa was.”
But that’s just the type challenge and uncertainty – no matter how small – that career transplants face when they move into a new area. So a group of employers envisioned a welcome wagon, of sorts, in an effort to make the transition as smooth as possible and keep professionals in the Lehigh Valley.
The Lehigh Valley Inter-Regional Networking and Connecting Consortium is entering its second full year of helping prospective transplants see the area as their future home and offering help in making the transition easier.
“It’s all about networking and connecting new people moving into the area,” said Donna Cornelius, executive director of the group known simply as LINC.
Retention, not recruitment
The organization has its roots in a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Lehigh University in 2013 to increase the ranks of women in academic science, technology, engineering and math careers. The university opted to use the grant for a regional approach, bringing together area CEOs to address attracting and keeping talent in the Lehigh Valley. LINC opened its doors in May 2015.
Cornelius points out that LINC is not a recruiter. Employers will instead utilize the organization to showcase the Lehigh Valley for job candidates.
“It’s important people see that the Lehigh Valley is more than just a good place to work,” Cornelius said. “But they can’t see that unless we show them.”
One job candidate in the medical field from Germany was considering the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, so Cornelius physically walked him through Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton to show him what the area had to offer.
One candidate from Eastern Europe wanted to know where in the Lehigh Valley she could find caraway seeds for cooking. Another candidate wanted to know if they could find a good Spanish tutor for their child.
And because it’s not a potential employer, LINC has much greater discretion in discussing the candidate’s possible needs.
“Because we’re independent, we can ask all the questions human resources can’t,” Cornelius said.
Do you have a particular religious affiliation? Do you have aging parents? Do you have children? Are you married? Do you have a same-sex partner?
Salary is important, but it’s not the only thing people consider in deciding whether to accept a job, Cornelius said. They want to know whether there’s a church or synagogue they can join, and they want an honest assessment of possible schools for their children, she said.
Partner resistance remains the biggest problem in recruiting and retaining candidates followed closely by family adjustment and concerns about their children’s education.
And there’s a financial stake for companies in retaining employees. If a company hires an engineer at an annual salary of $70,000, it may cost two to three times as much to search for, hire and train another engineer if the first one leaves within two years, according to Cornelius.
“We want them to see making this home because on the retention side, if they don’t make this home, they’re not going to stay,” she said.
During the hour-long intake session for one job candidate, Cornelius learned the family had a young special needs child and was looking for early-intervention programs. She arranged a meeting with Good Shepherd Rehabilitation.
She’s also arranged much simpler meetings such as a playdate among stay-at-home mothers, who moved to the Lehigh Valley for their husbands’ careers.
“People need to connect with other people,” Cornelius said.
North Carolina transplants
Lindsay and Chris Cardenas moved to the Lehigh Valley in October 2014 from Charlotte, N.C., when Chris Cardenas accepted a job with PPL as its customer services vice president. It marked their fourth move in eight years with stops in Chicago, Memphis and Charlotte.
They were LINC’s community transition program guinea pigs, and Lindsay Cardenas, in fact, took advantage of something as simple as setting up a playdate for their then 3-year-old son. They moved during the colder weather, so going to the playground wasn’t an option to meet other families and there wasn’t an on-line presence of other moms like there was in the larger cities where they previously lived, she said.
The couple said they knew nothing about the Lehigh Valley when they moved. Where are the grocery stores? Who offers a good pre-school program? What areas offer a quick commute to center city Allentown?
The Lehigh Valley offers everything you need, but the area is spread out, Lindsay Cardenas said. The local insight offered by Cornelius was far more effective than just wandering through the area for a week, she said.
Chris Cardenas believes a program like LINC can prove to be a valuable from an economic standpoint. Introducing job candidates to the Lehigh Valley brings in their spending power and the spending power of their friends and families, he said, adding he has personally recruited five families to the area.
“Not only did I have to be an ambassador for PPL, but also for the Lehigh Valley,” he said.
Future of LINC
Lindsay Cardenas, who is working with the LINC ambassadors, believes the program has helped them lay down roots quickly and deeply, more so than at any other stop in their travels.
LINC served 38 clients in its first partial year and 112 last year, its first full year. Cornelius expects that number at least double in 2017.
It’s difficult to say whether it’s harder to lure people to the Valley or keep them here, according to Cornelius. She projects she’ll need at least five years’ worth of data to determine the success of retention efforts.
Anecdotally speaking, employers report they are remaining in contention much longer than they used to compared to other metropolitan areas, according to Cornelius.
In the short term, Cornelius would like to add a coordinator to grow the ranks of the volunteer ambassadors who guide job candidates around the area or talk to them about working and living in the Lehigh Valley. She only has about 10 to 15 at her disposal and would like to have at least 50.
Another longer-term consideration is whether individual clients can pay for LINC’s services. Right now, partner companies and institutions make three-year financial commitments while members, which hire far fewer people each year, pay for services as needed.
Cornelius said job candidates have reached out about paying for community transition services, but LINC just doesn’t have the staff at this point to accommodate the requests.
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