Mahoning Valley manufacturers say a lack of workers interested and trained in skilled trades is causing workforce challenges.
Although recently exacerbated by a historically low national unemployment rate and growth in the manufacturing sector, Valley manufacturers first took note of the issue about a decade ago. Since then, a number of initiatives have been put in place to address the shortage of skilled workers.
Among the leaders of those efforts is the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, which formed in 2011 in response to the workforce issues local companies were reporting.
“I think we have been able to make progress and get the word out about jobs that exist, and even more so work with our local education partners to make sure programs are in line,” said Jessica Borza, MVMC executive director.
One example is the coalition’s collaboration with the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, which Borza said helps get manufacturers into local school districts to talk about career pathways.
The MCESC, as part of a state mandate, recently formed a Mahoning Valley Business Advisory Council that serves 21 local school districts. The group, comprised of 36 business leaders from across the different districts, was tasked with coming up with a plan to better align programs with workforce needs.
“This group of people met for a year to look at what are the workforce development issues that employers are facing? What are the workforce development pathways that are really present now for our students and young adults? What does the future job market look like?” said Doug Hiscox, MCESC assistant superintendent.
The BAC came up with a plan, which is slated for implementation next year, that lays out steps to better project job needs and anticipate training needs; develop a unified message that supports varied career pathways; build better communications among organizations; and expand work-based learning opportunities.
One of the most significant components, Hiscox said, is the planned development of a digital platform to share information about career paths.
The MVMC has a number of other workforce initiatives. It brings manufacturers into classrooms; assists with apprenticeship programs; works with local career and technical centers on their curriculum; hosts recruitment events; and gets the word out via social media, among other efforts.
The local career centers are also instrumental in providing training for these in-demand jobs, as is Eastern Gateway Community College.
Keith Murdock, EGCC executive director of marketing, said one recent step the school has taken to address new workforce needs is investing in an upgrade of its welding and machinist lab at its Youngstown campus.
“We have an open dialogue with many of these manufacturers,” he said. “We work very closely with unions, as well. We have contracts with all of the major service and industrial unions to provide training for folks.”
Some manufacturing companies also are involved in bringing this message about industry – that it is a viable, stable career path – directly into the classrooms.
Becky Wall, vice president of Dearing Compressor and Pump Co., visited a local high school recently.
“We talked about the sciences, we talked about engineering and oil and gas and drilling ... and that there’s more to life out there than the medical profession,” she said.
Mike Kovach, CEO of City Machine Technologies Inc., recently spoke at a vocational school and was disheartened that of the 100-plus students, only one expressed interest in following up.
“I think the biggest challenge for us is the lack of knowledge from students in middle school going into high school of the opportunities going into manufacturing,” said Chris Allen, North America talent acquisition manager for Vallourec.
Led by the MVMC, manufacturers are trying to change this by reaching students at an earlier age and demystifying manufacturing.
An upcoming event at the Mahoning County Career & Technical Center in Canfield, for example, will include fourth-grade students.
“People know what a nurse does,” Borza said. “It’s a mystery what happens in manufacturing, so one of our goals in the coming years is to give more opportunities for educators and parents and young people to get some of that firsthand exposure.”