“Unlike parts of America that are struggling, our future is bright,” says Lorain County Commissioner Matt Lundy. “We have strong school systems and businesses, and affordable property taxes. Our quality of life makes the county a popular place to live and work.”
Lundy credits Lorain County Community College (LCCC) with the commitment it has made to help job seekers find new careers through education and training.
“As we reshape the economy, the concern is that a lot of jobs won’t be coming back or will be performed remotely instead of in the workplace. LCCC is a critical part of making that transition successful,” Lundy says. “The college will continue to play a big role in educating people in new fields — and that includes those who’ve been laid off due to COVID. There are retraining dollars out there through OhioMeansJobs for people to learn new skills.”
“Not every county is fortunate enough to have a community college,” he adds. “Many individuals think that every county has one. Well, that’s not the case. We are truly blessed.”
Lorain County Commissioner Michelle Hung appreciates the ambiance that welcomes everyone.
“Look at all we have here,” she says. “You can drive 25 minutes and be in the country or in the city. You can easily take your kids to the apple farm or go to the theater. We’ve got life-in-the-city attractions and wide open spaces.”
“It’s a great place,” Hung adds, “to live, work and play.”
A Promise Kept
When Elyria mayor Frank Whitfield was on the campaign trail in 2019, he pledged to transform Elyria’s economy by creating 2,025 jobs by 2025. Despite the economic downturn due to COVID, that promise remains on course. Whitfield’s B.A.G. strategy involves a three-pronged approach: Build a city for entrepreneurs that makes it easier for startups to receive the support they need through easy-to-access loans and capital, affordable office space, customers and coaching. Attract employers through upskilling the county’s workforce by equipping residents with the in-demand skills and employers they need. Grow businesses currently in Elyria through improved infrastructure and opportunities to access talent.
The Elyria Skill City Promise, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the city of Elyria and LCCC, will help Whitfield fulfill his initiative. The program offers Elyria residents the opportunity to enroll in and complete short-term certificate or micro-credentialed programs at the college targeted toward four in-demand industries: business, computer science/I.T., health care and manufacturing. To be eligible, residents must have a high school diploma or a GED and enroll in a short-term certificate program for summer 2021 or beyond. Students who enroll have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials, complete their course of study in 16 weeks or less, gain hands-on experience in their field through apprenticeships and receive academic and career coaching.
“The pandemic has led many of us to re-evaluate the next stage of life,” says Ren Flanders, chief of staff and assistant safety service director for the city of Elyria. “It’s given us the opportunity to really think about what the future can hold if you invest in yourself.
Scholarship money is also available to provide “last dollar” awards to those students needing tuition assistance.
“Elyria has prided itself for decades on our hard-work ethic, our ability to get things done and our ability to continue to be a predominantly manufacturing town,” Whitfield says. “We know we need to invest in our greatest asset — our residents. As we come out of the pandemic, we need to dive in faster and double down to make this happen.”
Track to Success
LCCC’s Fast-Track Employment Certificate program served as the inspiration for the Elyria Skill City Promise. In April 2019, explains Tracy Green, LCCC’s vice president of strategic and institutional development, the college was already developing a strategy to meet the demands of the job market. The onset of COVID-19 escalated those plans.
“As the economy tipped and businesses closed, we asked ourselves, ‘Who needs us most right now?’ ” Green says. “The answer was working-age adults who live in our community, have homes and family commitments and have been dislocated from their jobs. We knew they needed to be able to quickly pivot to a new career track.”
Launched last fall, Fast-Track offers 21 different courses of study — ranging from guest services and hospitality, real estate and medical coding to computer diagnostics and welding technology — that can be completed in 16 weeks or less. Most are delivered online. All are free to those who qualify.
“We knew we needed to be bold to help our community recover,” Green says. “So we initiated Fast- Track with the promise that there would be no financial barriers that would hinder any student from pursuing a new career. It’s very confusing for students — particularly those going through the type of life-changing event the pandemic has brought — to figure out where they can get support to help pay for college. That’s our job. We work behind-the-scenes to find what they need.”
Ken Kudela, director of the Ohio-Kentucky Administrative District Council Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers and co-chair for the Ohio-Kentucky Administrative District Council Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), clearly remembers the heart-to-heart talk he had with his father more than four decades ago. Kudela loved helping his father, a carpenter, and uncle, an electrician, make repairs on their farm in Florence Township. He wanted to continue that education at the Lorain County Joint Vocational School (JVS).
His dad said absolutely not.
“My father was of the generation that wanted its kids to go to college because they believed that led to a better life,” Kudela says. “Back then, it was a novel concept to go to a vocational school.”
Father and son struck a deal: If the younger Kudela visited the school and found a subject the senior Kudela could not teach him, then he could attend.
“The masonry and bricklaying classes intrigued me,” Kudela says. “I enjoyed the idea that at the end of the day, you can turn around and see what you’ve accomplished. When I drive through northern Ohio, I see buildings I worked on and feel a sense of pride.”
Forty years later, Kudela, a mason and bricklayer, is still in the business.
“I tell people I started working on my hands and knees as a mason and now stand up to lay bricks,” he says, adding that his father relented after seeing his son excel at what he liked to do.
Kudela, who graduated in 1980 from Firelands High School and the Lorain County JVS, enjoys sharing that story with apprentices at the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Training Center in Amherst. The center offers training for bricklayers, tile setters, plasterers, cement masons, marble masons, restoration workers, stonemasons, helpers or finishers and terrazzo and mosaic workers.
The center’s program for most trowel trades consists of four years of paid on-the-job training and 160 hours (roughly 20 days) per year of in-class time. Kudela is also the administrator for 17 unions, which includes negotiating contracts and settling disputes.
“Lorain County has a very high potential to attract new business and keep a lot of people working,” Kudela says. “When existing businesses move, they don’t leave the county, they just relocate to a new area here to give themselves room for growth. And we’re so easy to get to. Whether you take Rte. 58, I-480 or the turnpike, all roads lead to Lorain County. There is so much potential here.”
In September, the Ohio Administrative District Council JATC began partnering with LCCC to offer an associate of applied science degree in masonry technology that includes four majors — bricklaying, cement finishing, restoration and tile setting and finishing. Students can also pursue four one-year technical certificates in the same areas and will be part of a four-year paid apprenticeship program.
The classes are designed for apprentices enrolled at JATC’s two locations in Amherst and Batavia. Masonry courses will take place at the training centers, while support coursework, including classes in math, industrial blueprint reading and construction estimating, will be offered online or on LCCC’s campus.
LCCC also has sponsored and registered apprenticeship programs that include training for tool and die makers, maintenance technicians, pipefitters, electricians and millwrights.
“What trades we teach at JATC have been around since ancient Babylon and will still be here a thousand years from now,” says Kudela. “There will always be a need for buildings, and someone has to construct them, install electricity and plumbing and build fireplaces. Those skills are ones that need tools and two hands. We teach our apprentices the technical aspect of what they need to know to be able to go out in the field and do what they do.”
Since 1944, the North Coast Building Industry Association (NCBIA) has remained steadfast in its mission to promote and strengthen the home-building and home-remodeling market. And that includes adjusting as Lorain County turns right side up after the global pandemic.
“As we continue to rebound from the impact of COVID-19, housing has been a bright spot in the economic recovery,” says NCBIA executive officer Judie Docs.
Remodeling will also remain strong as more people decide their home office needs an upgrade or opt to create a staycation by adding a home gym or a game room in the basement. As a result, residential remodeling is expected to experience a 4% gain over 2020.
Last year, Docs explains, housing was up 11% nationally over 2019; an additional 5% gain is expected this year. She cites research presented by National Association of Home Builders chief economist Dr. Robert Dietz that indicates that although the industry has hired more workers over the past year, it still has not been enough to meet the increased demand for housing. Historically, low interest rates are one factor driving the demand, but a geographic shift in where people choose to live is also affecting the housing industry, as lower-density areas — like Lorain County — become more popular.
“Workforce development is vital to the building industry,” Docs says. “The average age of someone in the trades is 57 years old, and he or she may be thinking about retirement, so we need to build our workforce. The home building industry offers more than just another job. It’s a rewarding career with a great salary.”
NCBIA associate vice president John Toth agrees.
“I don’t know if you can describe the labor shortage as a crisis, but it’s pretty darn close,” says Toth, the owner of Floor Coverings International in Avon Lake, citing the fact that as people are spending more time at home, they are recognizing the need to make some adjustments.
“In many cases, houses are serving as offices or school rooms when they’re really not set up for that, and homeowners are ready for a transformation. That, coupled with people’s desire to purchase a new home in Lorain County, is driving the need for more skilled workers in the building trades,” Toth says.
To assist in remedying the situation and spreading the word about the rewards of working in the building industry, the NCBIA is preparing to launch a pilot program with the Lorain County JVS that’s designed to pair students with mentors already established in the field.
“Instead of just an industry waiting for these students to graduate and hoping they’re ready to enter the workforce, we want to make them even better prepared,” says Toth, co-chair of the NCBIA’s Workforce Development Committee. “We’re not just going to focus on the entry-level aspects like making sure they can use a tape measure. We’re going to [offer advice] on the skills they need to land that first job and how those skills will transfer into leadership roles with a company and, eventually, how they will lead to owning a business.”
NCBIA vice president Tim King understands why the demand for housing in Lorain County is escalating.
“When people can finally go out and live again after COVID, I think many of them will want to continue working at home, and businesses will be a little more lenient in letting them do so at least several days a week. As a result, people will be OK with moving farther away from bigger work centers.”
“In Lorain County,” he adds, “there are less streetlights, less side roads and more space — along with affordability.”
In addition to helping design the Lorain County JVS mentorship program, King, who’s co-chairing the Workforce Development Committee with Toth, has made it a priority to find ways to offer financial support.
“We don’t want a student who enjoys building-trades classes not to progress because they can’t afford the tools to do so,” King says. “We’re excited about working with Lorain County JVS administrators and teachers to help the younger generation get excited about the field.”
Clearly, developing a skilled workforce is paramount at the Lorain County JVS. Established in 1971, it offers career and technical education courses for 1,500 students from 13 school districts in Lorain County, as well as adult learners.
Carpentry students learn basic skills and earn certifications that are essential for repairing, constructing and remodeling homes in practical settings — along with mastering framing, stairway construction and interior/exterior trim and finish. Those interested in the masonry trade master the basics of working with brick, block, stone and concrete — as well as marble and glazed and structural tile — while building walls, partitions, fireplaces and chimneys.
“We’ve established strong ties with local businesses so students can get work-based learning experiences, internships and job placement opportunities,” says Glenn Faircloth, superintendent of the Lorain County JVS says. “Many of our former students start their own businesses, they keep in touch and hire JVS students once they complete the program because they know our graduates excel.”