I’ll count it as the ultimate success of our county economic development office. The Times-Bulletin number one story of 2015: “Looking for Job Fillers.” The crux of that story was that Van Wert’s economic problem now is exactly the inverse of 2009’s unemployment problem. In 2016, there aren’t enough workers.
I’ve written several columns about this very issue and they are all available at my website, www.toddwolfrum.com. I’ll refer to those columns here if you missed them the first time around and are interested in reading further.
We created the county economic development office nearly three years ago to answer the question that wasn’t being asked: Why is the county population declining? Our initial director, Sarah Moser, found an answer in a book called “When the Boomers Bail” by Mark Lautman. I’ve gone over the thesis of that book a few times in this column. (Specifically, read: “A Generation Retires” from January, 2015.)
Discovering the demographic problem was the first hurdle. The second was convincing the vast majority of people who were waiting on the Megasite to bring unprecedented prosperity that this problem will be catastrophic for us, not immediately, but in the decades to come. In the spring, we held a stakeholder’s summit so business people, politicians, educators, and other interested parties could come together. Mark Lautman himself came to lead the discussion.
Business owners started talking and most discovered that they all had the same workforce shortage problem. There were plenty of jobs and no one to hire. As discussion continued, the population decline began to rise as the chief indicator of economic health. (Read: “Why Population Matters” – December, 2013.)
What further investigation revealed was that this problem is not local – it’s regional. We talked with people from Defiance and Putnam Counties and with Northwest State headquartered up in Fulton County. Everywhere around us there is this same workforce problem. I always ask people from the region about this when I get a chance and over Christmas I interrogated my sister-in-law who is in management at BF Goodrich. They can’t get people to work there for jobs that pay $30/hour. And all of this before the Boomers even begin to retire en mass.
The adage “If you build it they will come” no longer applies. However, locally, all anyone had talked about for several years was the Megasite. If someone does fill that Megasite with high paying jobs, perhaps that would help. But what would become of all of the factories here that are already having trouble finding people? This problem is unique in the history of our county and our country. (Read: “The Problem” – September, 2015.)
One solution is to grow from within by keeping as many of our young people as we can, otherwise known as the Mercer County model. (Read: “Brining It All Back Home” – November, 2014.) This needs involvement from our schools. We need to convince kids and their parents that, for many, going away to college isn’t the best option. (Read: “The Great Higher Education Swindle” – September, 2013 and “The University of Van Wert” – November, 2013.)
Van Wert High School became the first to take this issue head on. Bob Priest and Kerry Koontz led a forum last month to begin discussion on steering fewer kids to college and more to trades and skilled work. Such an effort would not only greatly benefit our community but would save many kids from insurmountable and useless college debt.
In the meantime, the county had helped Northwest State achieve designation as our community college provider. (Read: “College Arrives” – May, 2014.) With that designation, the certificate training many will need to fill the skilled jobs in our county is available. And more young people can begin college classes at home that will transfer anywhere in the state.
In effect, we can maintain our ties to JobsOhio and other regional efforts, but, because of the demographics, they’ve had nothing to offer rural communities for some time. If we are going to thrive in the coming years, drawing people will be as important and maybe more so, than drawing employers. A few months ago, I offered a comprehensive plan for an economic development effort to address population. (Read: “Science County, USA, Parts 1 and 2” – September, 2015.) Hopefully, other plans will also develop.
The Times Bulletin had not been a fan of the county economic development office from the outset. Of course, we were not mentioned in their number one story of 2015, although each of the columns referenced here appeared in the paper.
That’s more than okay. I think all three of us in the Commissioners’ office as well as Sarah and Sue Gerker, our current director in the county economic development office, are just happy we succeeded in getting everyone on the same page. You could have infinite economic development efforts that prove fruitless if they aren’t directed at the actual problem.
As the county economic development wraps up as a solo enterprise and merges with the city in the weeks to come, we can look back with pride and achievement. It wasn’t easy, but if we’ve convinced even the Times Bulletin that demographics is the county’s top economic issue, we are well ahead the rest of the region in a greater move toward addressing it. This will be a prime objective of the joint city and county effort.