Employers and schools are working to address labor shortage in southeast Ohio

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Last year a group of manufacturers in southeast Ohio asked more than a thousand students in middle and high school if they were interested in a career in manufacturing.

Just over 3 percent said yes. Forty-four percent said they were not at all interested.

“That is stunning to me,” said Kara Willis, regional talent manager for OhioSE, which promotes economic development in southeast Ohio.

The survey presents a huge problem for manufacturers in this region, who often struggle to find enough qualified employees to fill positions.

And it’s a big concern for those trying to promote economic development in southeast Ohio. Manufacturing is the backbone of the region’s economy. Having enough people who are not only interested in a career in manufacturing but also get the education and training needed for these employers is critical not only for the companies already here but also for efforts to recruit more manufacturers to the region.

“Our most pressing need is workforce and how do we get that workforce,” said Linn Yost, who owns a small manufacturing company in southeast Ohio that machines parts for companies around the country. He is also president of the Appalachian Ohio Manufacturers’ Coalition, the group behind the student survey.

“Without good workforce development you won’t have economic development,” Yost said. “You can have all the industrial sites in the world, but nobody’s going to come here if there’s not a semi-skilled workforce.”

Right now that workforce is in short supply, especially for positions that require a certain level of skill or knowledge.

In 2020, manufacturers in the 25-county region served by OhioSE had 13,959 openings. But there were only 7,202 completions in the programs in the region that provide the education and training needed for many of these positions.

These programs range from credentials offered through technical schools to advanced degrees offered through universities.

Not all of those job openings in 2020 required some kind of specialized education or training. Some were entry-level positions and others provided training on the job. So just comparing job openings to program completions can make the situation appear more dire than it is. Still, the number of program completions falls short of the need, although it has been climbing over the past few years.

“We are training more people. There are more students going into and completing these programs,” Willis said. “The problem is, we’re still not there yet to be able to keep up with the demand that our companies in our region have.”

Adding to the challenge are the population dynamics in southeast Ohio. The population has been declining for years, a trend that is expected to continue, Willis said. Meanwhile, the existing population skews older, she said, with nearly twice as many people over age 55 and nearing retirement than there are people aged 25-39 to replace them. The pandemic has accelerated the pace of retirements, accentuating the problem.

An empty manufacturing plant
[File Photo]

Workforce development groups are priming the pipeline

Getting more people into the manufacturing workforce pipeline starts with getting young students interested. But as the recent survey of students in this region showed, manufacturing isn’t really on their radar.

“A lot of the reason they weren’t interested in manufacturing is because they didn’t even know what manufacturing was,” Yost said. And this, he said, “is because maybe their parents don’t have a good perception of it, or maybe they know absolutely nothing about manufacturing. And mostly it’s the latter: They know absolutely nothing about it.”

The survey also revealed some outdated ideas about the manufacturing sector. Asked what education level was needed to work in manufacturing, almost 70 percent said only a high school diploma.

“Which blew me away, because our manufacturing companies are looking for skilled workers, skilled positions,” Willis said.

Depending on what they make, manufacturers may need engineers, chemists, biologists and physicists, Yost said. On the administrative side, they need accountants and management experts. Other positions don’t require advanced degrees but instead specialized training in electronics or fabrication. Even some of the lower-level positions still require training in operating specialized, high-tech equipment.

Manufacturers are realizing they need to be more actively reaching out to students in middle and high school and letting them know about the opportunities available and the education and skills required, Yost said.

In fact, there is a whole lot more reaching out going on when it comes to manufacturing jobs and regional economic development overall.

Some of this has to do with the pandemic, which has had some strange effects on the economy. One is that ever since the initial lockdowns eased early last year, employers have struggled to fill positions. Plus, many older people, who often hold jobs that require more advanced skills and knowledge, have decided during the pandemic to retire early.

Employers desperate for workers have raised pay and benefits and offered other incentives to lure applicants. This has created a significant realignment in the workforce as employees leave their jobs for better opportunities elsewhere.

The pandemic has also brought massive infusions of federal stimulus money into the economy, much of which will be spent by cities and counties on infrastructure. Add to this the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November and all this spending will create even more demand for workers.

This has created opportunities for community colleges and technical schools in particular because many of the jobs available now and the ones that are coming do not require four-year degrees. Economic development experts in southeast Ohio agree that these schools have a significant role to play.

“When I talk about workforce, my first thought is the technical schools and the community colleges,” said Laurie McKnight, director of the state Workforce Development Board for the area that includes Athens, Meigs and Perry counties.

“Because they’re the ones that if I go to them and say, look this employer needs this type of skill, how can we do this … (they) are immediately on the phone with me, on the phone with the employer, and we’re developing out that curriculum to make sure that our employers are set to have the workforce that they need.”

Manufacturing has to confront some stigmas

And yet, enrollment at community colleges has been declining, in Ohio and nationwide, a trend that began well before the pandemic. Community colleges and technical schools are finding that they also need to do more outreach to students in middle and high school to make them aware of the opportunities.

One of the challenges these schools face is the stigma that they are a last resort for low-achieving kids who couldn’t make it to a four-year college.

Connie Altier deals with this all the time. She is superintendent of the Tri-County Career Center in Nelsonville. In Ohio, high school students can opt to spend their junior and senior years at a career center. There they’ll get training in a specific trade while also completing the core classes required for a high school diploma.

Tri-County offers programs that prepare students for careers as computer network technicians, electricians, chefs, nursing assistants, graphic designers and firefighters, to name a few. Students may earn industry-certified credentials and get internships that not only provide on-the-job training but may lead to job offers right after graduation. Many of the programs can lead to jobs that pay livable wages right out of high school. For many students, the programs introduce them to a career that interests them and provide them with a foundation for pursuing a college degree in that field.

But still it can be a hard sell with students and their parents.

“We’ve had parents that won’t let their kids come to the career center,” Altier said. “They didn’t think what we were doing was valuable. They want them to stay at (their high school) because they think they need to go on to college.”

The belief that going to a four-year college is the most reliable route to a good career has some strong evidence behind it. Multiple studies have shown that those who do get college degrees on the whole earn considerably more over their lifetime that those who do not.

But it varies by occupation. There are low-paying jobs that require four-year degrees and high-paying jobs that do not. Many of the manufacturing and other jobs in southeast Ohio that pay a livable wage do not require four-year degrees, and this is part of the pitch technical schools and community colleges are making to students and their parents.

“For a really long time, community colleges have been trying to get that message out that to connect with good, livable-wage jobs it does not always necessitate a four-year degree, and in many cases that’s just simply misleading to assume that the outcome of a bachelor’s degree is going to be a livable-wage job,” said Amanda Herb, vice president of institutional advancement for Washington State Community College in Marietta.

More families are getting that message, she said, especially as rising tuition at four-year schools has put these colleges out of reach for some students or forced them and their families to take on over ever larger student loan debts.

“I have seen really a shift over the last … three years where I feel like the families that are coming to us are really doing some due diligence in their college search, and finally they are starting to realize that there is not a one size fits all for every student nor is there one pathway that will guarantee success,” Herb said.

Yost said that is especially the case with careers in manufacturing. “You don’t need $100,000 worth of debt to get a $100,000 a year job,” he said. “You can get that on a two-year degree. You can get that from a career center education.”

Technical schools and community colleges also struggle with the perception that they’re not on the cutting edge of the modern workforce. Electricians, heavy equipment mechanics, auto body technicians and other similar trades have long been staples of technical school and community college programs and may seem like old-school jobs far removed from today’s high-tech economy.

But the jobs are not the same, said Betty Young, president of Hocking College, a community college in Nelsonville.

“All of these programs now have technology as a key piece to what they’re learning,” she said. “If you get on a piece of heavy equipment today … the equipment is much more sophisticated and the technology is there.”

Young also said that over the past couple of years she is seeing a resurgence of interest in hands-on programs. More students are wanting to work outside and do something physical, she said. Fish management, for example, is one of the more popular programs at Hocking College right now.

Community colleges are also developing programs to give high students more opportunities to explore career options before they graduate. Young said she is working with employers to offer students earn-and-learn programs in which they can spend part of the school day working at jobs.

It’s not a new idea. Young said when she was a high school senior in the 1970s, she was in a program in which she went to classes half a day and spent the other half working for an accounting firm. She decided she liked the work and went on to earn an accounting degree in college.

“This isn’t a new concept but unfortunately it’s been a lost concept,” she said.

High schools used to provide students with more opportunities for vocational experience, but this was phased out decades ago as schools increasingly focused on preparing students to go on to college. And while it used to be that the first year or two of college was often spent exploring different majors before picking one, students today are increasingly expected to declare a major when they enroll.

“We expect students to know what they want to do when they graduate from high school,” Young said. For some, she said, “it’s almost paralyzing.”

Community colleges and technical schools come to the table

Faced with labor shortages and enrollment declines, employers and the community colleges and technical schools are not only doing more outreach to students, but also to each other.

It would seem that employers and the schools that provide so much of the training for their workforce would always work closely together. But that has not always been the case.

Before the pandemic, there was not as much dialog between employers and schools, said Willis with OhioSE. Employers were getting plenty of applicants and didn’t feel as much need to help prime the pipeline.

“Now we have companies who are reaching out and saying, ‘OK, who do I talk to, who do I call, who do I communicate with to get more employees,’” she said.

The schools, meanwhile, are looking to shore up enrollment.

So, there’s more collaboration now to make sure what the schools are offering aligns with what employers need. And working alongside them are the economic development professionals, who want to develop a workforce that’s prepared for the next wave of jobs and that will attract other employers to the region.

“It’s a perfect time to do those things because everyone is ready to come to the table,” Willis said.

For example, the Washington County Career Center created an industrial maintenance program because it was hearing there was high demand for these positions, Willis said. But it wasn’t getting enrollment. The school worked with its advisory board, which includes representatives from industrial companies, to revise the curriculum to better match what employers needed. OhioSE worked with JobsOhio, a state economic development agency, to provide funds for new equipment, scholarships and marketing.

The program has now been full for two years, Willis said. “The difference is listening to industry on what exactly they need when they hire someone and marketing that program to the right marketing avenues,” she said.

McKnight, the regional Workforce Development Board director, said she worked with Tri-County Career Center to develop a fiber optic installation program. Some of the big infrastructure projects coming down the pike will include laying more fiber optic lines in the southeast Ohio region. The program is just six and a half weeks long and wages for these jobs start at $18 to $25 an hour, McKnight said.

A couple of months ago, Tri-County hosted dozens of employers from the region for a tour of its programs. Altier, the school superintendent, said she wanted feedback from employers who were not on her program advisory committees and who were not hiring her students.

“I want to make sure that what I am doing here is what the business and industry wants,” she said.

Some of the employers were not even aware of the programs being offered and that students were being trained right in their own backyard for some of the positions they’ve been trying so hard to fill.

McKnight said that all these new connections being made are good for the schools, the employers, the students. But they also benefit the region in another way by keeping young people here — working here, shopping here, buying homes here, raising their own families here.

“We don’t want brain drain going on here,” she said. “We want to make sure we are retaining the students that are graduating here and that we’re finding them good employment. We can’t give people hope if we’re not offering that hope.”