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By Kathy Ruff

A recent study finds Northeast Pennsylvania might be lacking in the area of financial literacy.

“Our research study demonstrated the importance of financial literacy,” said Terri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development. “It surely has an effect not just on the economic status of an individual and family but on the community as well. It’s tied to many indicators of poverty and social assistance needed.”

According to the report, financial health requires that learning begin at an early age and progress consistently over time to establish a strong regional economy.

Carbon Chamber & Economic Development Corporation has taken steps to meet those needs by collaborating with Junior Achievement of Northeastern Pennsylvania (JANEPA).

“We see a skills gap in the students in financial literacy, not just in (our) business education partnership meetings but in everyday life,” said Kathy Henderson, CCEDC’s director of economic development, Lehighton. “We felt, because there is a gap that exists in students’ education, the Junior Achievement program is a perfect fit to fill that gap.”

That gap includes a lack of the basic knowledge of how to keep a checkbook, pay bills or budget finances as well as the responsibilities of keeping a job and earning an income.

“Students that are able to learn (financial) literacy through Junior Achievement programs will make better employees because they are going to be able to budget their money and to understand how to run a business,” Henderson said. “For businesses, it would make their employees more responsible and better overall employees if they have that secure knowledge that they are able to manage their money and not (be) worrying about living from paycheck to paycheck. They can focus on their jobs and do a better job for their employers.”

As an approved educational improvement organization (EIO), JANEPA also can offer tax credits to qualified businesses under the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.

Junior Achievement programs embrace at least one of their three pillars: work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

“A lot of our programs also teach students about employability skills, the skills that you need to be successful in the workplace and also how to secure a job,” said Melissa Turlip, JANEPA president, Pittston, Luzerne County. “We have programs that look at resume writing, interview skills and things like that but we also have programs that talk about how to conduct yourself professionally, how to use appropriate language, behaviors and actions with your fellow co-workers and also customers they may interact with.”

Learning about those soft skills and other business concepts helps employers decrease the time and energy needed to train new employees. Participants in JA programs also may learn business specifics, such as how to count change, from real-life examples shared by community and business volunteers.

Educators in Carbon County also realize the immeasurable value JA programs offer.

“We’re partnering with Junior Achievement to teach a personal finance unit to our seniors,” said Dave Reinbold, administrative director of the Carbon Career and Technical Institute, Jim Thorpe. “We want to make sure that our students are able to make informed choices about personal finances and business decisions regarding money, insurances, mortgages, loans, things of that nature, when they graduate.”

CCTI plans to give the program to its entire senior class — about 100 students — beginning in the 2017-2018 school year.

“If we don’t teach to them, I’m not sure where they’ll get this information before they graduate,” he said. “If they start businesses, the more they understand about finances and the business world in general, the better they would be. Our job is to try to get them as successful as possible in all walks in life.”

Having walked several different paths of the education industry over the past 38 years, Gloria Bowman, retired educator, educational consultant and school board president in Lehighton Area School District, sees the critical value of financial literacy education in providing opportunities and economic growth in the county.

“We’re always looking for ways to keep our graduating students — whether it’s with their high-school program or four-year degree — in our area,” she said. “I personally believe the skills relevancy of this (JA) program would contribute to enhancing our students’ skills as well as potential economic growth with our local students by keeping them here, by wanting to stay, open a business and work or raise a family in Carbon County. That’s positive for all the people in the county and all the people living in the area.”

Those positive outcomes extend to the business community.

“One of the things businesses say to me is that the young people are not prepared with the soft skills,” said Maureen Donovan, assistant director of workforce and community service for Lehigh Carbon Community College, Tamaqua. “They can teach them to be a technician. They can teach them work skills, but they can’t teach them soft skills and responsibilities, the idea of team, the idea of being a responsible employer and employee. That’s what Junior Achievement does, really. There are so many different areas where it helps a young person.”

Donovan saw first-hand the value of JA programs as a volunteer for an eighth-grade class when she resided in Florida.

“It’s very, very important for students to be responsible for themselves as well as their employers,” she said. “It’s good because the employer does not have to take the time then to teach them the soft skills. They can immediately start working in the area of their choice and their expertise. The employer doesn’t have to use up time and energy because these young people are coming prepared with the right mind set. They have the right mind set to be a good employee as opposed today to just coming in and saying, ‘Okay, now what do I do?’ ”

Terri Ooms shares Donovan’s view on the value of the
JA programs.

“Junior Achievement is an excellent program and I’m really glad that it’s going into Carbon County,” she said. “I truly believe that project-based learning that’s applied in nature is very effective in helping kids. I wish that there were programs in every grade and that financial literacy was embedded into curriculum because it’s that important. The applied project-based nature of it really aids in retention and can certainly make a difference in the life of an individual as they grow up and make choices.”