Partnership to promote manufacturing

MARIETTA — Although economic development thinkers dream of attracting manufacturing plants – and their high-paying, stable jobs – with tax breaks, shovel-ready property and robust infrastructure, those perks aren’t at the top of the list for manufacturing firms.

Their No. 1 concern is people.

“The biggest issue in Ohio is workforce,” Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers Association, said recently. “It’s finding, recruiting and developing talent in manufacturing at every level, from entry level production through highly skilled technician jobs.”

Burkland was in Marietta last week to attend a meeting with industry and education leaders at Washington State Community College aimed at establishing an Appalachian regional project to promote manufacturing careers.

The OMA has done this successfully in other parts of the state, notably in the northeast, where the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, now in operation for seven years, is considered the gold standard for such efforts.

“It’s a manufacturer-led effort to quantify the occupations in demand currently and in the near-term future, and work with partners, school and government to map the workforce assets and work together to recruit young people,” he said.

In October, jobs in the production, transportation and materials handling occupations – of which manufacturing jobs are a part — hit an 18-year high, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, closing in on the record set in 2000 of more than 20 million jobs. Although Washington State Community College and the public K-12 school system through the Washington County Career Center have made determined efforts to partner with skilled trade unions and manufacturing concerns, the shortage of workers has put a lid on industrial expansion in the region.

Burkland said the Department of Labor has committed $150 million in support of apprenticeship programs for next year, and the formation of a regional manufacturing coalition in the Appalachian area of Ohio will position the organization to acquire some of that funding, possibly as much as $1 million for intense workforce development in the region.

“That’s another reason to form these partnerships, we’ll be better prepared to go after these resources,” he said.

Attracting young people to careers in manufacturing is a challenge, he admitted.

“We need to do a better job communicating to young people and their parents what opportunities are in manufacturing. There are a lot of stereotypical images, that it’s dirty and boring, that just aren’t true anymore,” he said. “These are high-paying jobs with great benefits, lots of variety and diversity in the jobs, development opportunities for certificates and degrees. The technology is just exploding, and these careers are becoming very exciting.”

To promote these aspects of manufacturing careers, the OMA has launched Making Ohio, a one-stop information program intended to draw young people into manufacturing careers.

The meeting at Washington State Community College included the OMA, college representatives, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and a consultant from Thomas P. Miller Associates of Indianapolis, which helped launch the Mahoning Valley coalition.

Jessica Borza, a strategic advisor with Thomas P. Miller who led the Mahoning Valley effort, said Thursday the effort in Appalachia will expand partnerships.

“We really want to lift up the things that are working, but we need a more cohesive marketing strategy to promote these programs,” she said. “In the Mahoning Valley, we do speaking engagements and market this across the state.”

Filling workforce needs is critical for manufacturers, she said.

“We haven’t taken a deep dive into southeast Ohio, but we know that the needs include machinists, industrial maintenance workers, welders, production workers,” she said. “The real challenge is supporting the needs of customers and businesses in light of retirements from the labor force.”

Expansion is being held back by the shortages, she said.

“Manufacturers tell us that if they could find ‘x’ number of workers, we could take on more business. In fact, that’s why the Ohio Manufacturers Association chose to take this on as a priority, because it’s such a critical need,” she said.

The meeting at the college was a preliminary session, Burkland said.

“We’ll have another meeting soon to establish the partnership,” he said. “It’s in the early formation stages, and I’m really excited about it.”