No issue is more important to economic development in Ashtabula County than workforce development. We are unprepared to tackle this issue at present for five interrelated reasons, which are discussed in this article. This is at least a 10-year change effort.
- Limited View of the “Problem” and “Solutions”: Current local thinking about the county’s workforce challenge is limited and disconnected. We need an integrated view of the “problem” and a connected way to solve the problem. In all fairness, many communities suffer from this problem, which causes: a) employers to blame workers, and workers to blame employers; b) an obsession with short term fixes and solutions rooted in short term training and recruitment; and c) a failure to see the “future” developing before our eyes. Ashtabula County needs a Workforce Alliance (WA) that makes the most of local workforce development and educational resources and draws more upon regional workforce and educational resources that can help us produce better workforce solutions. The WA must be 100% committed at addressing the root causes of our problem, and not the symptoms.
- Mix of Jobs Available and Jobs People Want: Jobs are available in the county. These include many entry level jobs, a good number of skilled jobs, and some talent-driven professional and management jobs. Turnover is high for entry jobs, which is not unique to Ashtabula County; it’s a challenge everywhere. We have great difficulty recruiting highly skilled workers for the reasons discussed in this article. But do we have the jobs that people (residents and workers within the surrounding region) want? The national and regional economies are stronger and more people are working as a result of the economic rebound. Fewer workers, especially quality workers, are available because more are working. Those who are not employed are: not prepared for the jobs that exist; they don’t want the jobs that exist; or they simply don’t want to work. Workers for now can be more picky about the jobs they work at. We must also look ahead at the jobs and industries of the future, which is why I have posted so many futuristic articles here on the forum. We must plan ahead and invest in the jobs and industries of the future.
- Location Challenge: Ashtabula County is a good place to live and work with future growth potential, but the county is distance-challenged because of its location. This challenge reduces the number of workers willing to commute daily to jobs in the county. There are limits to how long and far workers will commute, especially for low-paying jobs with limited benefits. Ashtabula County falls outside the 30-minute commute range for a large part of the regional workforce that can be accessed in Lake County and other NE Ohio counties. To compete for quality workers, we must reexamine the advantages and benefits we offer workers employed in the county. This is a sensitive issue that must be approached with the current workforce in mind. One thing every employer can do is create a work environment that treats workers with dignity and recognizes them as whole human beings. Not many Ashtabula County employers make the “best places to work” list in NE Ohio. More employers need to strive to make this list.
- Quality of Life: Ashtabula County lags in quality of life offerings (housing, shopping, education, entertainment, and other amenities) compared to surrounding locations. To compete for talent, we must improve local quality of life. This means cleaning up the county in a physical sense. It means marketing the advantages we have. It means improving the housing stock so people will want to buy a home in the county. It means marketing what our schools do right, and improving our schools in areas where they are weak. It means differentiating the county as a place to live, work, and play. Finally, it means raising residents’ self-esteem and self-image. They must believe in themselves!
- Build the Future: Our civic, governmental, and educational leaders must invest in making Ashtabula County a better place to live, work and play in the future. We can’t do it all, which means we must set priorities and concentrate our efforts to get things done. Also, we must look for opportunities to connect and unify economic development and community development. Our future action agenda should focus on three integrated priorities: 1) Investing in People, which starts with educational and workforce advancement; 2) Investing in Place, which should be about housing, shopping, area clean-up, and creating a healthy and quality environment; and 3) Investing in Growth Companies and Entrepreneurial Economy, which means economic gardening of existing growth companies, creating more technology businesses, connecting young talent to grow existing businesses, and investing in our core industries that matter most (manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare and wellness, and young entrepreneurship).
If we do these things well, the workers we need will emerge, but it will take time. It will take us 10 years or more. It’s all about continuous improvement.