Ohio gets down to business of retooling its workforce

Michael Carroll
Posted: Jul 14, 2017 2:31 PM

Ohio’s state government leaders are venturing beyond tax policies, fiscal issues and regulations and into the wonky realm of realigning its workforce and higher education system to better meet the needs of businesses.

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. John Kasich has highlighted the disconnect among university and college programs, employer training programs, economic development agencies and the needs of businesses around the state. Kasich signed an executive order in 2012 creating the Office of Workforce Transformation (OWT) and the governor’s Executive Workforce Board to bring order to the fragmented arrangement of workforce agencies in Ohio.

“Kasich has worked hard to diversify the state in terms of the industries that are here,” OWT Director Ryan Burgess told Watchdog.org, noting that Amazon and IBM now have operations in the state and energy companies are showing a renewed interest in southeast Ohio.

Both Kasich and Burgess have emphasized how changing technologies and innovation, from driverless vehicles to delivery drones to robotics and artificial intelligence, are challenging the skill levels of the state’s workforce. In turn, all of the OWT’s actions are geared to making sure state workforce agencies are aligned with the needs of business, Burgess said.

But it’s unclear whether the increased coordination between the private and public sectors in Ohio is yet paying off. The state’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in May, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, compared to 4.6 percent in Illinois, which has endured protracted political divisions and a two-year state budget impasse.

A study released by Ball State University in Indiana on manufacturing and logistics industries gave Ohio a grade of “C-” in “Human Capital,” which measures the skills levels of the state’s workforce.

But the state’s efforts should bear fruit in the coming year, according to Edward Hill, a member of the faculty at the Ohio Manufacturing Institute. Manufacturers in the state are taking ownership of the workforce problems, and the state is showing pockets of progress in producing skilled workers, Hill said.

In addition, the state has started funding training in robotics and advanced manufacturing centers around Ohio, he said.

Burgess emphasized that Ohio has created 460,000 private-sector jobs since 2011 and that labor force participation and wages are both headed in the right direction.

Dave LeDonne, a member of the Executive Workforce Board who works for MPLX, a division of Marathon Petroleum, sees 2017 as a foundation year for the workforce efforts – one that will help put business leaders and educators on the same page.

MPLX’s operation in Harrison County has gone from having 30 employees in 2013 to 300 today, LeDonne said, and its production of natural gas from the Utica shale region has increased more than 20-fold.

“The state itself has done a good job to create a collaboration” on workforce training, he told Watchdog.org. And LeDonne’s company has been able to take people from mills that were shutting down and transfer their skills to natural gas collection and processing.

“We’ve had a lot of success with transferring skill sets from the existing industry that was around here,” he said.

The challenge now is to get more young people onto career paths that will prepare them for in-demand jobs in fields such as energy, nursing, medicine and information technology, LeDonne said. That may mean exposing them to training options beyond four-year degree programs, such as apprenticeships, internships and skills-based certification training.

“You’ve got to get down to grade schools and high schools,” he said.

Burgess said a key focus of the OWT, an umbrella organization for 13 state agencies, is to make sure that state programs are preparing future workers for in-demand jobs. Such jobs may be driven by demographics, as is the case for health care occupations, or a high turnover rate, as is common in occupations such as trucking, according to Burgess. Other in-demand jobs rely on advanced technology, cyber security and information technology, he said.

The OWT has its sights on helping both high school graduates looking at career options and workers in shrinking industries. The key question for the 50-year-old who is losing his job is, “How do we help that person pivot and get into a new industry,” Burgess said.

But the agency is also looking at younger people and getting them and parents to think about career opportunities.

“Sixty-five percent of secondary students are predicted to work in jobs that do not yet exist,” one OWT report states.

Workforce proposals in the governor’s current budget include several key themes, Burgess said. These include creating a culture of continuous learning to cope with rapid technological change and building more career pathways to in-demand jobs, such as apprenticeships and internships.

Lorain Community College in Elyria has been among the key players in higher education on workforce issues and forming alliances with Ohio businesses.

“In northeast Ohio, health care, manufacturing and IT are certainly the drivers” in the workforce, Terri Burgess Sandu, director of talent and business innovation at the college, told Watchdog.org.

Among the changes Burgess Sandu has seen is the state’s expansion of hands-on learning opportunities for high school students who take college-level courses. The state has also given community colleges the go-ahead to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees to certain in-demand workers, she said.

And Ohio has changed its formula for funding community colleges to one based more on performance, she said, as educators work to break down barriers between educational programs and businesses.

“Conceptually, we all know that we need to partner and do it differently,” Burgess Sandu said.