Leaders from across Appalachia convened recently in North Carolina to discuss solutions to our issues and ways to strengthen the region.

Having more than 500 of our region’s best and brightest doers and thinkers coming together is exciting. More and more, our talented homegrown leaders are rolling up their sleeves and staying home. Those of us with applicable professional skills, connections and leadership capacities must add our voices to this conversation. Our future depends on it.

The question has been asked, “Do we have the grit to address the challenges before us?” Perhaps they don’t know who we are. We are from Southwestern Pennsylvania. We invented grit. Ask a coal miner in Greene County or a Washington County farmer. Don’t even think of bothering those hard-working folks working on the drilling rigs in both counties. Around here, even our kids have grit.

We have the energy and natural resources in our region that give us abundant economic and community development opportunities. Conversely, we know these economic generators bring complex challenges. Regardless of how you look at it, the two sectors will be forever linked.

I grew up on a simple gravel road in Fallowfield Township, but it was part of a community that started the Industrial Revolution that powered our nation. The decline of steel and coal, our traditional industries, had not yet begun, and the natural gas boom was not even in our thoughts. Times were good then. Our communities were economically robust and socially diverse.

That is where the grit arose. We know how far we have fallen, yet we are still here. Our communities are looking for strategies that will facilitate a just economic transition through responsibly managed natural resources, widespread energy efficiency and renewable energy. Industry is answering the call – specifically, the natural gas industry and supporting industries that benefit from this abundant resource.

When I talk with industry leadership about the region, the conversation always turns to our people. The words I hear most often are tenacity, resilience, commitment, and – of course – grit.

The natural gas industry needs that grit as much as it needs the resource under our feet. The resurgence of Appalachia, and the revitalization of Southwestern Pennsylvania is dependent upon that collaborative effort. All of us working with the best and brightest of the industry to address the challenges before us. The opportunity we have been seeking for 30 years has arrived at our front door.

Let it be known there is a very good alternative to a four-year college degree: the building trades. We should call it our “blue-collar university.” Perhaps because I was raised by a teacher, I believe the biggest concern facing our region is preparing students for the workplace of the next 30 years.

There is tremendous support within industry for STEM education programming in our high schools. But we have room to improve. There is some connectivity to be made among our local school districts, career/technology centers and manufacturing.

Organized labor has been our region’s backbone. The building trades unions are: Boilermakers, Bricklayers, Carpenters, Cement Masons, Electricians, Insulators, Ironworkers, Laborers, Millwrights, Operators, Painters, Plumbers/Pipefitters, Sprinklerfitters, Roofers, Sheetmetal Workers and Teamsters.

Each craft has apprenticeships available for new craftsmen, which can be applied for each year.

Apprenticeship programs through the building trades share equal importance with scholarships through our community colleges and universities. Apprentice programs are four or five years long, depending on the craft.

The biggest advantage of the apprenticeships is the ability to earn while you learn. And our corporate partners have an important role in this education/training initiative, not only with their money, but their knowledge base and partnership in sharing that knowledge and technology with our students.

That is how we keep our homegrown talent, and grit, at home.

Jamie Protin is founder and principal of The Protin Group in Belle Vernon.

To submit business-related columns, email Rick Shrum at rshrum@observer-reporter.com.

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