Saint Francis center aims to assist ex-coal workers

The Saint Francis University Small Business Development Center is part of a statewide effort aimed to help small businesses in coal impacted regions across Penn­sylvania.

The U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Economic Administration  have funded three Pennsylvania SBDC projects as part of the POWER Initiative, a multi-agency effort to invest federal economic and workforce development resources in communities and regions negatively impacted by changes in the coal economy.

The Saint Francis University SBDC is implementing programs to assist small business owners impacted by the significant loss of jobs in the Southern Alleghenies region of Pennsylvania – Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties.

Director Barry Surma said the SFU SBDC got involved in the  project because of the impact the downturn in the coal industry has had in the Southern Alleghenies Region, with the greatest impact in Somerset County.

According to statistics from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Labor, the coal industry employed 1,419 people during 2012.  By the end of January 2015, this number had dropped to 865.  In this short period, direct mining employment dropped by 554 workers.  This represents a reduction of more than 39 percent in that industry over the period. This is the largest percentage reduction in coal employment of any county in Pennsylvania, Surma said.

Between 2012 and 2014, Somerset County ranked sixteenth among counties in the country in terms of the total number of job losses. No other county in Pennsylvania ranked in the top 30 in terms of job losses in the coal industry, Surma said.

Saint Francis’ program is designed to make available a variety of resources.

“One focus will be on the opportunities for entrepreneurship among displaced miners. Some of the displaced individuals may have specific skill sets that can transition individuals from employees to small business owners,” Surma said.

For example, some of the displaced individuals may be licensed electricians. In this case, the individual already has the professional training and licenses required to operate as a small business owner but may need some assistance in setting up his or her own business, Surma said.

The Small Business Development Center can help such individuals through the core services that the SBDC provides to all clients such as developing a business plan, structuring a financial proposal to present to prospective lenders, setting up accounting systems, or obtaining a tax payer identification number or sales tax license, he added.

A second focal point of the program will be to work with businesses located in the coal supply chain.  As the volume of coal production has decreased, these business have experienced a decrease in revenues that had been generated from sale of the products and services to the coal industry. These businesses have demonstrated the ability to provide high quality products and services to the industry, Surma said.

This program is designed to help those businesses explore opportunities to diversity their customer base and explore new markets, both domestically and internationally, Surma said.

The other program offering under the project will emphasize work with small businesses that have also been impacted by the decline of the coal industry. The main street types of small businesses have reported losses in sales because their customers have experienced declines in personal income, Surma said.

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