County, region face challenges developing workforce

In light of a skilled workforce shortage seen not only in Ashtabula County but elsewhere in the region, employers and state legislators are plumbing the well for fresh ways to attract or keep employees.

The lack of capable workers was one of the reasons Amazon passed over Cleveland as a location for its second headquarters earlier this year, state Rep. John Patterson told the Star Beacon. It’s also one of the reasons Cristal Global in Ashtabula has trouble hiring for “niche” positions from either within or outside the county.

“There has been a ‘brain drain’ out of Ohio and a lot of our young people have left us for the coasts,” Patterson said.

Greg Myers, Ashtabula County Growth Partnership executive director, said in total there are “easily” 100 manufacturing jobs that are open, running the gamut of skill levels, from entry level to plant manager.

Ashtabula County’s current unemployment rate is a seemingly encouraging 5.5 percent, according to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services estimates released in March.

That’s relatively low, as 4 percent is often regarded as the rate of regular job turnover or the “churn” of the labor market. But it’s actually a symptom of a larger problem with work participation rates in Ashtabula County and elsewhere in the nation, said Craig Sernik, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Council of Governments Area 19 Workforce Development Board.

Of the about 80,000 working-age Ashtabula County residents, about 56 percent are working or actively seeking work, according to the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That’s lower than the about 63 percent national rate, which peaked at about 67 percent at the start of last year.

It’s also influenced by various other factors, Sernik said.

“Part of the sustained decrease in worker participation rates has to do with a continued pattern of decade-long low wages, which have struggled to keep pace with inflation,” he said.

“However, that is not the only reason. Close to zero growth in population of the county, the increase in the median age of the population that lives in the county, a population that lives longer, and a population that is able to retire and stop working while still physically able to work also all contribute to a shrinking labor market and worker participation rates,” Sernik said.

“The labor market is like many other markets governed by supply and demand. The amount of wages offered has an effect on the supply of individuals who are willing to work for what employers are willing to pay,” he said.

Other factors that affect the available workforce are transportation issues, drug addiction and small percentage of people who don’t have a work ethic and take jobs only to stop showing up almost immediately, Myers said.

He said the low unemployment rate tends to mean higher skilled and motivated employees already have jobs, which makes it harder for businesses to hire qualified candidates.

“Right now it’s

just the availability of people that have,

not necessarily skills but have experience

or motivation to be in the workforce ... or non-issues with their past,” he said, adding a common complaint from businesses is they struggle to find people who can pass a drug screen.

Youth efforts

Some of the largest local employers recently learned county youth preparing to enter the workforce value quality of life as much as wages and advancement. Ashtabula County Youth LEADERship students, all area high school juniors, have been researching workforce development and retention efforts for Cristal Global and Lukjan Metal Products of Conneaut, and presented their findings May 1.

“Make the building visually appealing. Get a sign. Play music. Have company outings. Provide lunches,” reads one recruitment presentation.

Another presentation proposed regular

retention interviews — similar to exit interviews but conducted across an employee’s tenure, with questions designed to keep workers happy in their jobs. Beth Dougherty, Cristal’s HR business partner, said it was like a “light bulb kicked in.” That’s something she said she hopes to propose at Cristal in the future.

The Youth LEADERship groups found millennials and the Generation Z-ers born after them are projected to make up three-quarters of the global workforce by 2025.

But they also noted local employers aren’t reaching those groups as effectively as they could be through the internet or social media — which about 90 percent of both employers and job seekers nationwide use to connect — instead sticking to traditional media largely ignored by younger groups, like print or radio.

“We need to take a look at our recruitment process and change it based on the

wants and needs of the new people coming into the workforce,” she

told the Star Beacon. “They have different wants and needs and different expectations. They have some amazing ideas on ways to attract candidates and keep people.

“We’re forgetting the workforce is changing.”

Retaining

a workforce

Retaining employees is also a challenge for Cristal, Dougherty said. Though local employers are finding the county’s employment well sparse because of lack of skill training and ever-increasing drug use, Cristal also struggles to hire from outside the county because the county itself seems uninteresting, she said.

“We have some niche type of positions and we have some hard-to-fill positions. This county does not have people within that can fill those,” she said. “When we go outside of the area, we have a hard time with people remaining here unless they’re young and single because their families don’t enjoy the area.”

But the LEADERship students picked up on more local attractions than the Cristal HR had considered, Dougherty said: the state’s only Olympic training facility in Spire Institute; Pymatuning’s lake and state park; Geneva’s wine country; and Erie’s Presque Isle — all things that need to make it into the “welcome” packet, she said.

“There’s tons of things that we don’t even think about,” she said. “We sell ourselves short in our area.”

County Commissioner J.P. Ducro IV agreed. He called the Youth LEADERship presentations a “microcosm” of the critical issues surrounding local workforce growth, and said more county businesses should be asking how they can meet workers’ needs.

“I think reaching out and connecting with them early on from a business standpoint is a good investment,” he said. “(Businesses will) have to devote capital and resources and manpower to do that kind of outreach and training, but I think that’s going to be a good investment ... if we can keep our own and stop the ‘brain drain.’”

Myers agreed recruiting from outside the county can be a challenge and stressed building around what Ashtabula County has to offer, such as a lower cost of living and amenities like Bridge Street, the Metroparks, quality school districts and affordable lake front property.

“The setting can appeal, but I have heard that has been a challenge on the high-skilled worker side. ... For the general skilled, lower skilled (workforce) it is a matter

of coming to work, showing up and staying, and then the

addiction challenge,” Myers said. 

Patterson also referenced the brain drain back in 2016, when he first introduced a bill that aims to repay portions of student loan debt for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates who continue to work in Ohio after finishing college.

The bill failed to gain traction that year — “the timing wasn’t right,” he said — but he reintroduced it in October as House Bill 396. It’s since been heard in the House Finance Committee and he said there’s newfound interest in expanding its scope.

“The Cincinnati and Columbus area Chamber(s) of Commerce are in great support of this bill,” Patterson said, adding he and co-sponsor state Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Township, have also met with the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board.

“Sometimes, there has to be a perceived need, and I think the (board) understands fully now how critical this need is,” he said. 

According to Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County metrics at the time, more than 500 working-age residents from all fields leave the county each year.

The bill’s language proposes $2 million annually from the state’s higher education budget to create a STEM Degree Loan Program to incentivize the kind of job growth enjoyed by technology hotspots like Silicon Valley or MIT.

Bachelor’s graduates would be eligible for up to $2,000 per year; $4,000 for graduate degree holders; and $8,000 for those who’ve earned their PhD, Patterson said. The new bill could include associate’s degree holders or those who studied at career technology centers.

Patterson said it’s a step toward plugging a vacuum left by baby boomers, some of whom are retiring “at an alarming rate.”

“We, demographically, lack the sheer

numbers of millennials coming out of high school. ... We don’t have the number to replace (the boomers),” he said. “We are at a point where there are definitely more jobs (than) there are people to fill them.”

MATT HUTTON contributed to this article.

Hot jobs nationally

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most in-demand jobs across the country. This chart lists the top jobs by estimated occupational openings, regardless of salary, through 2026 for those with 100,000 or more.

Job type Positions available (in thousands)

Accountant/auditor 141.8

Bartenders 102.3

Business operations specialists 104.2

Carpenters 104.4

Cashiers 653.7

Childcare workers 189.1

Combined food prep (ex: mess attendant) 736.0

Construction laborers 145.3

Cooks/restaurant staff 195.3

Counter attendants 113.2

Customer service reps 373.5

Elementary school teachers 112.8

Food prep supervisors (ex: banquet chief) 146.3

First-line office supervisors (ex: payroll) 153.0

First-line retail supervisors (ex: store manager) 168.5

Food prep workers (ex: deli clerk) 157.7

General operations managers 210.7

Heavy truck/tractor-trailer drivers 213.5

Home health aides 168.6

Janitors/cleaners 344.1

Laborers/freight handlers 388.4

Landscaping/groundskeepers 163.0

Light truck/delivery drivers 109.8

Maids/housecleaning 202.0

Maintenance and repair 154.7

Nursing assistants 195.1

Office clerks 356.2

Packers/packagers 108.4

Personal care aides 414.3

Receptionists/information clerks 151.1

Registered nurses 203.7

Retail salespersons 670.3

Sales reps general (ex: business sales) 131.0

Sales reps manufacturing (ex: bottling, freight) 158.4

Secretaries/ administrative assistants 244.3

Security guards 157.5

Stock clerks/order fillers 269.2

Teacher assistants 147.9

Teachers 122.2

Team assemblers (ex: automobile assembly) 107.4

Waiters/waitresses 522.7