Supporting Our Workforce. It’s been a topic of discussion among local business leaders long before facemasks became fashion statements.
“This priority is a pre-COVID one,” says Tony Gallo, president and CEO of the 650-member Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, the largest on the West Side of Cleveland. “Over the past few years, many baby boomers have been retiring, and others have opted to just leave the workforce. It was, and still is, becoming clear that we don’t have enough people with the talent, certification and education to automatically plug-and-play into positions that were held by people for 40 years or more.”
The good news: Lorain County’s unemployment number is down to 3.6%, as compared to the state of Ohio, which is 3.8%. The conundrum: There are more jobs open in Lorain County than there are residents to fill them..
“Lorain County is gaining population because Cuyahoga County, and other parts of Ohio, are losing population,” Gallo reflects. “But that doesn’t mean the workforce problem is being solved. We’re simply rearranging the game pieces on the board — and that’s not a solution.”
That topic was at the forefront of the Chamber’s fifth-annual Economic Summit, “The Future of Work and Skilled Gap Solutions,” held in September at the Lorain County Community College Spitzer Conference Center. The symposium is designed to spur the dialogue needed to find creative solutions to economic and workforce development challenges.
“Our manufacturers and our service industry people are just chomping at the bit,” Gallo says. “They’ve got all these openings, and they can’t fill them. Clearly, the question remains, ‘Where do we find people to fill these gaps?’”
David DeLong, president of the Massachusetts-based consulting firm Smart Workforce Strategies, understands what Lorain County — along with the rest of the nation — is facing. A former research fellow at the MIT AgeLab and author of The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management published by McGraw-Hill, he was the keynote speaker at the Economic Summit. His talk, titled “Closing the Skills Gap: Innovative Talent Solutions for a Changing Workforce,” examined how to solve the talent issue as we move forward.
“[Companies dealing with employment shortages] have different perspectives,” DeLong says. “Sometimes, an executive is totally focused on short-term recruiting and retention solutions — in other words, ‘I’ve got to get entry-level or skilled talent tomorrow.’ Others have a more long-term goal: They’re thinking about the future of their workforce three years down the road, recognizing that new technologies are coming into their business — and knowing they’re going to need new skills, particularly in manufacturing and the supply chain.
“Frankly, employers have been spoiled in the last 30 or 40 years because there’s been a glut of talent in the marketplace. But new forces are in play. In addition to retirees, more than 2 million women at all levels left the workforce during the pandemic, largely because of child care issues or security or rethinking their own careers.”
Coupled with that, DeLong adds, is one of the most unrecognized trends in our society: Increasing numbers of prime-aged males between the ages of 25 and 54 are opting to work part-time.
“The time has come to really think about how we’re thinking about this problem,” he says. “Are we going to follow the same old process — the same old way that involves just assuming things are going to proceed as they always have? Or are we going to really think differently about the problem given the challenges we face?”
DeLong is optimistic about the future. But, he’s quick to add, in order to ensure a positive outcome, a new way of thinking about what employees really want and need is imperative. He cites five strategies that serve as successful starting points:
• Be the best employer you can be. “Make sure you’re hiring smart and onboard really well,” DeLong says. “It’s also important to train people effectively to do their job and ensure they have the support they need. Employers also need to recognize that they’re probably not going to keep people longterm so they need to reorient their expectations about how long employees are going to stay and don’t freak out when they don’t.”
• Be flexible in your work design.“I have smart manufacturers telling me that since there just isn’t the talent out there right now to find full-time workers, they have to be open to part time,” he says. “And that’s a smart move because there are smart people out there who want to work part time. Employers have to be willing to structure jobs that meet those potential employees’ needs.”
• Consider alternative hours. “An example would be three 12-hour days on, and three 12-hour days off, followed by four days off,” DeLong says. “The nursing profession has been successfully doing this for years.”
• Recruit younger and earlier. “Visit students in high schools and colleges so they become familiar with your company,” he says. “Create and offer them internships before they get snatched up by bigger firms who have elaborate internship programs which may pay more.”
• Look outside your industry for candidates.“Savvy managers are becoming more open to looking outside their industry for employees who might not have the content knowledge of the field, but possess core skills that are invaluable,” DeLong says. “I had one bank executive tell me recently that customer service skills are a talent he believes is hard to come by. So when he meets someone who’s really good at customer service, he asks them if they’ve ever considered a career in banking, where the pay is higher and the career path is longer. DeLong shares a personal case in point: His niece managed a bridal salon before her exemplary people prowess led to a job offer selling software used in complex mergers and acquisitions.
Gallo is committed to ensuring the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce remains a catalyst for bringing leaders together to brainstorm about the future. As a result, members are clearly stepping up to the plate to ponder and put solutions into play.
Lorain County Community College
Lorain County Community College is on a mission — a mission to prepare 10,000 more individuals with degrees and credentials by 2025 in an effort to meet employer talent gaps and help them prepare for good jobs. Thus far, LCCC is halfway there: More than 5,500 individuals have graduated from LCCC and the University Partnership since 2019.
“Lorain County Community College and the University Partnership offer accessible, affordable and flexible pathways to degrees and credentials that prepare individuals for in-demand jobs,” says Lorain County Community College President Marcia Ballinger, Ph.D. “We maintain close connections to employers to build, adjust and maintain our curriculum, ensuring the students we graduate are prepared to fill open positions quickly.”
To achieve this, LCCC has developed two effective ways to address the labor shortage in an equitable way: The college offers short-term certificate programs that help those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic return to work, and has created earn-and-learn pathways where students get paid work experience while they’re completing their schooling — thus filling both employee and employer needs.
At the onset of the pandemic, Lorain County Community College launched its Fast Track to Employment program, which retrains dislocated workers in less than 16 weeks and is tuition-free for students. Today, the program includes more than 60 employment pathways to in-demand fields, such as healthcare, information technology and manufacturing. Since 2019, Fast Track has conferred more than 1,000 certificates. The program has given those most negatively impacted by the effects of the pandemic the power to rejoin the workforce and change their lives in weeks, not years.
Simone Yalanty did just that. When Yalanty was laid off from her a job as a machine operator due to COVID-19, it seemed to come from out of nowhere. “It was pretty surprising,” she says. “We hadn’t been told anything until the day of the meeting when we were told we were being laid off for two weeks.”
Two weeks turned into 13. But Yalanty, 26, had decided early on to use the unexpected layoff to change careers. She earned a short-term certificate in Computer Information Systems – Software Development. Having all the classes online has made it easier for her to continue working when she was rehired by her employer and complete the coursework at a manageable pace.
LCCC partners with employers to create innovative solutions to the talent challenge. Programs designed in an earn-and-learn format are proving effective. In these programs, students work for an employer in jobs related to their field of study and attend LCCC at the same time.
Ridge Tool, along with other manufacturing companies nationwide, is facing the challenge that has ensued with the shortage of skilled labor that’s being exacerbated by an aging workforce. Ridge Tool’s solution, in part, is building a foundation for the future of skilled talent through apprenticeship programs in partnership with Lorain County Community College.
“Ridge Tool’s philosophy and approach to skills training are very similar to LCCC’s,” says plant manager Joe Hofferth. “We know that hands-on learning is the best. You can’t learn in a classroom alone. You have to be able to put your hands on the tools and use them in a real-life situation again and again. Plus, LCCC is in our backyard. They are a part of our community and recognize the need to partner with local companies to thrive in Lorain County.”
This shared philosophy allowed Ridge Tool and LCCC to build a program focused on the right skillsets for each apprentice. They complete 10,000 on-the-job hours and 1,000 contact hours at LCCC, which can then be applied to an associate degree program. The cost of tuition and supplies is paid for by Ridge Tool.
Jarrett Gerken, 31 of LaGrange, says the skills he’s learning in the classroom are immediately applicable to his workday, and are creating tangible benefits.
“The coursework and workload at my job really make the concepts that we have learned come full circle,” Gerken says.
Horizon Education Centers
Since opening in 1978, Horizon Education Centers have remained true to providing high-quality care and education for children six weeks to 12 years of age in western Cuyahoga County and Lorain County. But, explains executive director Dave Smith, that philosophy has evolved over the last four decades.
“My mother founded the company as an after-school program because she was afraid children were spending too much time in front of the TV,” Smith says. “But through the years, we’ve become the workforce behind the workforce to give parents peace of mind. They can drop their kids off on the way to work, and we’ll make sure they get to school. We’ll pick the kids up after school and take them back to the center, where parents can return to pick them up.”
These days, Horizon is dealing with challenges once thought to be inconceivable. Prior to the pandemic, the company’s 18 centers were at full capacity, serving approximately 2,000 children. When COVID struck, the centers closed for two months. When they reopened, 10% of the staff — most of whom were over age 60 or have ongoing medical conditions — opted not to return. At full throttle, Horizon employs a staff of 400. Currently, that number stands at 327. Right now, the list of children waiting to be admitted contains 415 names.
“The demand is huge,” Smith says. “We have the centers, we have the buildings, we have the school buses. We just don’t have the employees.”
Horizon is in the throes of remedying that problem, offering training programs that fit all levels of experience and career tracks. Each has a host of benefits, including health coverage, tuition reimbursement for college classes, paid professional development programs, a retirement savings plan and holidays and paid time off after completing a 90-day probationary period. Parents who work at a Horizon are also eligible for reduced tuition for their offspring.
“Right now, we’re at a crossroads,” Smith says. “It looks as though the federal government is preparing to fund a variety of initiatives on this topic, which will lead to a lot of opportunities. The question is: Are we going to be able to mobilize quickly enough to put a trained workforce in place? As a guy, I’m hesitant to speak about child care issues, since it’s a [priority] that usually falls to women to take care of — many of whom are single heads of household. But one thing is clear, reliable child care is essential for people to be self-sufficient and make it on their own. If we don’t have it, that’s not going to be possible.”
Lorain County Workforce Development Agency
As anyone who’s ever done it knows all too well, looking for a job or new career path can be a long, winding, lonely road littered with rejections and no replies. Mike Longo, director of the Lorain County Workforce Development Agency, and his team are a port in the storm when it comes to successfully navigating the route.
The agency provides access to services targeted to meet workforce-related needs of area employers and job-seekers, as well as youth preparing to enter the world of work. It also provides oversight for OhioMeansJobs Lorain County, the county’s one-stop employment center dedicated to providing customer-friendly services tailormade for individual needs.
“We help folks in Lorain County in a couple of ways,” Longo says. “Our adult programming provides funds for individuals to retrain or train for higher-level certifications to help them become more employable.”
Longo is quick to add that programs and resources are not only geared toward low-income individuals, but also dislocated workers who’ve been laid off and qualify for unemployment.
“Family income,” Longo says, “has nothing to do with anything.”
Eligible applicants can receive up to $10,000 a year for tuition to train for an in-demand occupation as defined by the state of Ohio.
“We’ve funded people who are pursuing programming at the community college or the JVS,” he says. “But we’ve also funded folks who are going to proprietary schools in fields that range from truck driver training to registered nurse training.”
If a student opts to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, $20,000 is available to offset tuition — a clear win-win, since students incur less debt.
“There are some occupations the state of Ohio defines as critical,” Longo says, “so in some cases, our work force board has approved up to $40,000 for a four-year program.”
The agency also assists with transportation costs to supportive services that include money for gas and bus fare.
As the world has changed, an increasing number of occupations have become outdated. The Lorain County Workforce Development Agency is a lifeline for those feeling disheartened.
“One of the advantages of tapping into the public workforce system is that when you have individuals who might be in an occupation no longer in demand — or there are no opportunities in the industry — connecting with our system helps people get engaged with workforce specialists,” Longo says. “They assist job-seekers with tapping into career assessments and other tools that help them understand what in-demand industries are out there that would be a good fit for the skills they already have.”
Best of all, Longo adds, these services are free.
“We’re not here to magically get people jobs,” he says. “We’re here to help people stay focused and find the skills they need.”
Child Care Resource Center
Although quality child care is a pivotal decision for families, it’s one that’s often hard to resolve.
Since 1989, Lorain County’s Child Care Resource Center has helped solve that dilemma. The center, which serves five counties, has evolved into a premier resource and referral agency. It’s become a leader in transforming early care and learning by ensuring the children they service are ready for kindergarten. In addition to helping families make informed choices about the care that’s right for their children, the center recruits, trains and supports child care professionals and advocates at local, state and national levels.
“We work with anyone who connects to early education,” says Child Care Resource Center executive director Jennifer Dodge. “But we also help families in need of other services and lead them to what we call the ‘front door’ to getting them — including finding ways to pay for child care.”
Dodge adds that many parents who contact the center have no idea there are child care programs in their area aside from the ones they pass every day.
“Here in Ohio, we have a very mixed-market of child care delivery, which is defined by a variety of options,” she says. “It’s not just the child care center you see that has its own building and a sign out front. We also have licensed family child care providers who work out of their homes: Licensed Type A home-based providers accommodate 12 children with the help of a staff person. Type B providers care for six.”
Organizations the Resource Center works with include public and religious-based preschools and school-aged child care programs, along with Head Start and other community-based options. The center also supports the early-care workforce by providing training and assisting new-business initiatives.
During the pandemic, the Child Care Resource Center’s Staffing Solutions program offered staff within approved programs much-needed breaks by providing job-ready substitutes. The platform, which will continue, features benefits that include vacation days, time off to attend family events with their own children and professional development sessions.
“We have an extensive database of all licensed child care in our counties pre-pandemic and now,” Dodge says. “There are providers we know who ran strong businesses and, because of the pandemic, were forced to close them. Right now, there are many sources of financial support that will help them reopen and stay strong when they return.”
The pandemic has proven there’s strength in numbers, and Ohio’s 18-county Northeast region comprising Team NEO — which includes Lorain County — has banded together to accelerate economic growth and job creation in a world that’s rapidly changing.
“We — being the economic development community — have realized over the past six or seven years that talent’s become the single most differentiating factor for how businesses think about growth and how they can grow,” says Jacob Duritsky, Team NEO’s vice president of strategy and research.
Since 2001, the VP adds, northeast Ohio’s 18 counties — which include four major metropolitan areas — have lost about 170,000 residents, including 150,000 workers who’ve either retired or out-migrated to different parts of the state or country.
“Some have moved to coastal cities,” he explains, “but we’ve also lost out to markets such as Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago. We have to be objective about the realities of our labor market. The fact is we’re not going to grow our way out of this problem.”
Over the last five years alone, significant gaps in the talent market have continued to widen, particularly in the IT, health care and manufacturing.
“In any given year,” Duritsky explains, “we still have 50,000 to 55,000 more jobs than we have credentials being conferred for in those three sectors.”
To resolve this chasm, Team NEO has developed a three-pronged strategy to spread the word about the benefits these fields offer.
“We’ve started taking messaging about in-demand career opportunities to businesses and higher education,” Duritsky says, “but we’re also working with sixth- to 12th-graders to help them think about what their passions in the marketplace are.”
The second component is Team NEO’s Talent Development Council, which is co-chaired by Dr. Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College, dedication to aligning higher education and business leaders so they have conversations around a consistent set of topics that will move the economy forward over time.
“It’s one thing to know how many credentials are being conferred,”
Duritsky says. “It’s a very different conversation to say, ‘How do we get up to speed, and how quickly can
we produce more graduates in critical fields?’”
Team NEO is also working with
JobsOhio a private, nonprofit corporation designed to drive job creation and new capital investment in Ohio, by providing talent acquisition services, as well as tax credits and grants to help companies looking to grow facilitate a better hiring process.
“We’re doing all of this with the support of tons and tons of community partners,” Duritsky says. “Clearly, it takes a village to affect change.”