The Chamber of Greater Springfield s Vice president of Economic Development Horton Hobbs leads a discussion on job growth for Clark County. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF

Clark County seeking to keep skilled workers in jobs close to home

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati confirmed a challenge local economic development officials have been concerned about for years, that skilled workers are leaving Clark County for jobs in neighboring communities.

The labor analysis provided by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center offered proof for the first time that not only confirmed those concerns, but also showed what industries are most being affected and where workers are going. Now that more information is available, local officials said they think it provides an opportunity now that the challenge is more clear.

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“What we hope to do is explain to employers that there are opportunities,” said Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for the Chamber of Greater Springfield. “There is a chunk of folks … who are leaving the county every day for opportunities somewhere else. It’s a net loss.”

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About 54 percent of those who live in Clark County work in other communities, said Nora Vonder Meulen, a research associate at the UC Economics Center who worked on the study.

Scott Griffith, president and general manager of seven Lee’s Famous Chicken Restaurants in the region, is part of a job readiness task force looking for ways to address the issue. Other companies involved in the effort include representatives from Yamada North America, Inc., an auto parts manufacturer and Assurant, a firm that provides insurance and related services in partnership with financial institutions and other major clients.

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The challenge of finding qualified workers is a problem for employers across the region, regardless of industry, Griffith said. If workers are leaving Clark County, that makes it more difficult for local employers to fill open jobs.

“Given the economic climate, it’s not going to get any better in 2019 and there are a lot of employers where it’s at a crisis level,” Griffith said.

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The analysis showed Clark County is losing the most workers to Montgomery and Franklin Counties with the biggest deficits in industries like manufacturing and retail. Keeping just a portion of those workers would provide a significant boost to area employers and could boost the county’s economy, Hobbs said.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever truly identified that as an opportunity,” Hobbs said. “Now that we know the opportunity that allows us to be more targeted in our conversations with employers and it allows us to think differently as we market our community for job opportunities.”

Reasons to commute

There are a variety of reasons local officials believe workers from Clark County are looking elsewhere for opportunities. Its likely the county’s location between Dayton and Columbus plays some role, simply because larger communities typically support more companies, Vonder Meulen said.

But residents surveyed as part of the study also told researchers pay and job opportunities play an important role. About 44 percent of residents surveyed cited better wages as the main reason they look for work in neighboring counties. Another 19 percent said the kind jobs they’re trained for are hard to find in Clark County.

Researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to track the flow of workers into and out of the county, Vonder Meulen said. The surveys were conducted online and through mail surveys included in utility bills.

Clark County joined several neighboring counties to conduct a wage and benefit study late last year to determine how local businesses in the region compared to other firms and industries in the region, said Amy Donahoe, director of workforce development for the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

Many Clark County companies have started boosting wages to compete for available workers as the unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent for most of this year, Donahoe said. She said markets like Columbus tend to offer higher wages than local companies. Especially when companies are struggling to fill open positions with a limited number of available workers, it’s important to remind local business owners that they’re no longer just competing with a similar firm in town, she said.

“We’re now competing for workers in easily a 45- to 60-mile radius,” Donahoe said.

Aside from higher wages, workers who choose to live and work in Clark County do benefit from issues like shorter commutes and transportation costs, and companies can look at improving benefits or work conditions to be more attractive to workers, she said.

“There are other things we can market as well,” Donahoe said.

A marketing strategy

A task force led by a handful of local employers has already stepped forward to develop a short-term strategy to tackle the problem, Donahoe said.

The Job Readiness Task force was developed several years ago at part of Greater Springfield Moving Forward to look for ways to improve the local workforce. Greater Springfield Moving Forward is an organization implemented by The Chamber of Greater Springfield to address issues from improving parks and green space to investing in high-traffic areas that lead into Clark County and Springfield.

One solution already in the works is the task force is working with three area marketing firms, who are developing a campaign to promote jobs and businesses in Clark County to make residents more aware of opportunities available locally, Donahoe said. Area companies involved in the effort are covering the cost of the marketing effort.

Donahoe said the marketing firms include Shiftology Communication, Upward Brand Interactions and Hucklebuck Marketing.

The marketing project is in its earliest stages, Griffith said. But the goal is to look for ways to make workers in the area more aware of the opportunities available in Clark County.

The UC study pointed to some factors that highlight the challenge in Clark County. For example, the majority of workers leaving Clark County to work elsewhere are some of the county’s highest earners, Vonder Meulen said. About 54 percent of the workers crossing the county line to work elsewhere earn more than $3,333 per month.

And although manufacturing is one of Clark County’s key industries, the study showed about 2,200 more manufacturing workers are leaving the county than are coming to Clark County from other communities. The study also showed a deficit of about 1,100 workers in the professional, scientific and technical services sector.

That means numerous jobs available in Clark County are going unfilled, Griffith said.

“It’s no secret that’s the number one topic of conversation among employers not just in Clark County but across the region,” Griffith said.

Other efforts

Entities in Clark County have developed some programs to tackle the problem well before the most recent study showed the problem was real, Donahoe said. A long-term solution will require a variety of initiatives that are developed with input from groups like local school districts and colleges, businesses and economic development officials, she said.

She pointed to initiatives like a job fair held for the past several years in downtown Springfield that connects middle school students from districts across Clark County with local employers. That annual event was developed to encourage students to start thinking about possible careers at an early age and make them more familiar with Clark County businesses, she said.

Last year, Donahoe launched a program called Career Sync to make area college students more aware of the opportunities available in Clark County. The program provides educational meetings for students over the summer that include information on self-branding, mentorships, networking, negotiating compensation and more. Ideally, students who complete internship and develop more connections in Clark County are more likely to stay after they graduate, she said.

“It’s not one solution,” Donahoe said. “There has to be multiple touch points.”

The county has taken steps in the right direction, she said but the primary goal has to be to get numerous local agencies working in the same direction to better tie educational and training opportunities with the kinds of jobs local employers need to fill.

“Everyone is starting to talk a single language,” Donahoe said. “We have to prepare a workforce that’s going to meet the needs of our businesses.”

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