A welding student at the Springfield-Clark CTC cuts a piece of metal in this file photo. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Leaders say now is time for Springfield to overcome skills gap

The Springfield area feels the effects of a tight labor force more deeply than other communities across the country, but area leaders said the tide is turning in Clark and Champaign counties.

Across the nation a healthy economy with more jobs but low unemployment is creating major workforce concerns, especially in health care and manufacturing, two industries vital to the area’s prosperity. Clark County’s unemployment rate was 4.8 percent in December and Champaign’s was 4.1 percent, both hovering around the state rate of 4.6 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

For health care, a shortage comes from an aging population spiking demand for medical professionals and others that support health systems, but the supply of workers isn’t keeping up.

The same is true for manufacturing positions and industries that support manufacturers like high-skill welders, maintenance technicians, truck drivers and other transportation and logistics components as those same baby boomers exit the workforce in droves, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

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“In the state right now, and especially Clark County, we’re competing for the same workforce,” said Clark County commissioner Melanie Flax Wilt. “What we’re faced with is that issue — trying to fill positions that have been vacated by baby boomers — with a population in our community which is primarily baby boomers.”

Roughly 10,000 people become eligible for retirement in the United States each day, according to the Pew Research Center. Clark County has long recognized that its population is skewed to older generations, but Wilt said she has seen younger people staying or moving back to the community after college, thanks to years-long initiatives to grow population and meet local workforce needs.

“The infrastructure is here. I feel like this is our time in Clark County; things are happening and people are seeing it,” Wilt said. “We’re not just talking about the future, we’re not just talking about the past, we’re seeing things right in front of us develop in a way that is really attractive to workers and people who are looking for a place to call home.”

The skills gap

Many factors contribute to the current workforce dilemma, including a shift in career choices for today’s millennials driven by fewer coveted jobs in skilled trades as baby boomers stayed in the workforce longer than their parents, Hobbs said. Now they’re retiring and leaving major employment holes with a smaller population to fill jobs.

But the biggest concern for the workforce today is that even among the smaller population, the young people who are graduating high school do not have the skills to directly enter the workforce in what economic experts have coined the “skills gap,” said Marcia Bailey, director of the Champaign County Economic Partnership.

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The skills gap has been accentuated as high schools continuously shifted focus to college preparation and dropped hands-on training through shop, agriculture and home economics classes, along with work release programs where high school students could leave school to gain workforce experience, Bailey said.

“Everyone my age or in my generation was kind of told: focus on college prep. And if you don’t focus on college prep, maybe you went to (Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center), but there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on job skills training prior to hitting the workforce after college,” Wilt said.

But leaders in Clark and Champaign counties have launched several initiatives in recent years to help close the skills gap and teach youth early that not all jobs require a college education.

Starting out young

Many school systems don’t readily have the funding available for hands-on, skills-based classes after decades of letting them go by the wayside for college preparation instead, Hobbs said. But Springfield, Clark County and Champaign County are working to make sure students learn skills or at least know that those jobs exist.

“The constant drive for further education is a great thing. But sometimes you can get that education through your employer, and we’re not making sure people understand that well enough,” Bailey said.

Similar to the ACT college readiness test, Clark County is participating in the ACT Work Ready program that leverages the ACT WorkKeys test to show if potential employees have the basic cognitive abilities to learn a particular job. Anyone can take the test whether unemployed or still in high school.

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The state of Ohio has started paying for each high school graduate to take the traditional ACT or ACT WorkKeys, said Amy Donahoe, director of workforce development. Yet there is still a major push to take the ACT for college, she said.

But high school students looking at non-college bound career options can find ways to get hands-on training in the area.

In Champaign County, leaders are creating YouTube videos that highlight young people working at area manufacturers to show youth the options. In recent years both Clark and Champaign counties have started career fairs for eighth grade students in the public schools systems and launched high school internship opportunities.

The CareerConnectEd Consortium launched several years ago among Clark-Shawnee Local Schools, Global Impact STEM Academy, Springfield City School District and Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center to connect local schools with hands-on learning and improve workforce development.

Other school partnerships have created satellite programs through Ohio Hi-Point to prepare middle and high school students for entry-level jobs including manufacturing, agribusiness and production systems, supply chain management, information technology, aviation and career connections programs at Urbana City Schools, West Liberty-Salem Local Schools, Mechanicsburg Local Schools, Triad Local Schools and Graham High School.

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“We’re seeing more and more of the hands-on training that may have gone by the wayside before,” Bailey said.

College students are also learning more skills with two- and four-year programs focusing on manufacturing and health care. Bailey said Urbana University recently added supply chain and manufacturing into its business program so graduates can move into those jobs after graduation.

Clark State Community College in Springfield is a leader in providing training and resources to meet various community needs, Hobbs said.

Working with employers

Employers have also taken it upon themselves to close the skills gap, launching extra training programs and working with local governments and colleges to meet workforce needs.

They’ve started new apprenticeship programs for college students and sit on various boards and committees to share their needs with local leaders. A Jobs and Jobs Readiness Committee comprised of local school systems, colleges, employers, government officials and economy development leaders meets monthly in Springfield to talk about work force solutions.

Clark State, Department of Jobs and Family Services, manufacturers and Opportunities for Individual Change of Clark County formed a manufacturing collaboration to fill major needs for precision metal forming among local manufacturers, Hobbs said.

A similar group, Champaign County Manufacturers Council, in Champaign County focuses on workforce problems, Bailey said.

Outside of brainstorming large-scale solutions, manufacturers have also made internal changes to attract more talent to Springfield and its surrounding counties. Last year McGregor Metalworking Companies boosted its entry-level wage from $11 to $13 per hour, which brought in slightly more skilled candidates, said director of human resources Kara Williams.

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The company is still looking for ways to attract top talent, like using radio advertisements and offering signing bonuses for off-shift technical positions like tool room, maintenance and experienced press operators, she said. But the company hasn’t had much luck, with most entry-level hires not showing up for work after a few days.

The wages, of course, is one of the primary things but that’s not the end all,” Donahoe said. “We’re finding a lot of companies are doing some creative things with time off, flexible time, working from home.”

Some companies are looking into job sharing with other businesses if possible or offering shorter hours between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to attract more people who aren’t in the current workforce like stay-at-home mothers. Others are offering a buffet-style, pick-and-choose benefit package for potential employees to choose what they want most.

“If you’ve got good employees, you’re trying to hold on to them because somebody might come along and take them right out from under you because they offered a little bit something different,” Bailey said.

McGregor has shifted focus to retain its current 350-person crew. The company is working on a revamp of its training and orientation to help workers feel more informed before they hit the floor, Williams said.

“Even with the skills gap, we’re trying to do some internal (advancement). Who’s interested internally in tool and die? And can we start training them versus trying to find somebody with that skill set,” Williams said.

A “vibrant core”

Finding ways to close the skills gap won’t be enough for a community with an aging population between two major cities that are growing. The Springfield area needs to attract new talent and grow its population, Hobbs said.

“Millennials are drawn to urban centers and vibrant cores and we’re working hard here in Clark County to improve those opportunities that can make it more appealing to a millennials,” Wilt said.

The city has been working on rejuvenating downtown Springfield. It recently brought in urban expert Quint Studer to plan ways to jumpstart redevelopment.

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The city is also moving forward with plans to develop a $6.55 million parking garage to handle needs for the increasing number of motorists working downtown as the city attracts new jobs.

“When you think about how do you grow your population? How do you become a place that is right for business investment? Well, you have to be a place that people want to live,” Hobbs said. “This whole quality of life notion, sometimes it gets swept under the carpet … but it’s ever more important today than it has ever been because frankly, companies now are having to locate where they can find people.”

That’s why the city and county are also attracting and investing in new housing developments and amenities that will further offer a benefit to young people considering moving to Springfield, Wilt said. DDC Management is planning a potentially 200 home development on East National Road near Walmart, the first project of this size in years.

Springfield has made other major improvements in the last five years—5,000 jobs moved to the city and average salary has increased faster in Clark County than the state over the last year, Hobbs said.

“There isn’t going to be a silver bullet, so you have to build this continuum,” Hobbs said. “And for us, we’re doing that as a community. And that’s why I love our odds. That’s why I love where we’re positioning ourselves as a community.”

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