The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland sponsored a regional workforce development forum on Wednesday June 1st 2016. This free event was held at the Corporate College of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. For an entire day, people of various walks of life tied to figure out, as urban economist Jim Shahahan put it, how to create a regional plan to get jobs to people in this region.
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson were there for introductory speeches plus greetings from staff members from the Federal Reserve, such as Mark Sweitzer (Senior Vice President of External Outreach) who moderated the first session. Like the Midwestern Resilient Cities Summit (or the planning and zoning workshop I attended a week later) the forum’s format followed the traditional structure of introductory speeches from local officials, panels of experts, breakout sessions, and closing remarks interspersed with continental breakfast, breaks, and a boxed lunch. They all are interchangeable in format if not in content; right down to an email asking to answer another survey one week later.
Nevertheless, the meeting was convened for all the right reasons. As Sweitzer told the audience. “We are not reaching our maximum employment unless everything on the ground is working right.” Two-thirds of our workers don’t have a college degree at any level. In a state where municipal governments are still struggling with the loss of revenues that resulted with the repeal of the estate tax, how are we going to provide the monies necessary for the community colleges to take on the role everyone Wednesday wanted them to play?
One thing that was a common theme of the forum which, I must admit, has been mentioned many times before is the role community colleges play in workforce development in this region; what more they must do in the future. According to Fred Dedrick, Executive Director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, from his experience employers expect high school and community college graduates to be ready to work; an impractical expectation.
For himself, Holzer believed that, despite what they are doing, community colleges like Tri-C and Stark have problems they must solve; addressing the weak academic skills of many freshmen students, containing rising costs, providing more information to students on the labor market and something which may be difficult for so many students these days to solve, the pressure of working a full-time job to pay for a part-time education. He naturally argued that community colleges are under resourced and face the wrong incentives to expand workforce programs. More tightly targeted government funds for community colleges based on accountability should be implemented.
He then reminded the crowd about life-long learning. Personally, I would argue that Cleveland State University’s elimination of its’ Division of Continuing Education was a mistake it this regard. After all, the workforce development role the experts were talking about in that room for community colleges is exactly what state universities, like Cleveland State, were originally intended to play. On the other hand, the rise of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) can enable a person to gain certification for a career without stepping into Tri-C’s Corporate Campus. Why get a technical writing certificate from Lakeland Community College when you can get one online from MIT?
Holzer also believed that the Government must commit to a “Good Jobs Strategy” with incentives and assistance. Well, what does that mean and is it any different from what has been tried before? After all, Zenyep Ton of MIT discussed this in her own book published in 2013 titled, what else, The Good Jobs Strategy. Personally, when I think of a strategy like this, it should be an effort to bring in more better paying jobs to te region not just cross-train people who already have one so they don’t feel stuck.
The break-out sessions were interesting. For example, in our group, someone from Stark State College, Daryl Revoldt, Executive Director of Workforce and Economic Development, talked about how the situation is south of Akron. He said that in Stark County, many of the college’s graduates stay there and go to the small local firms; unlike here in Cleveland. Another thing worth noting, for example, is the fact that the average manufacturing firm in Wayne and Stark Counties has 30 and 40 employees respectively. However, there is the potential for job growth in such firms; and they are looking for what is called ‘soft skills’ in an employee. In regards to Dedrick’s enthusiasm for internships and apprenticeships, Revoldt mentioned that, for a small firm, the profit margins are not large enough to get a college intern or apprentice, unless they get help to knock down the costs. Therefore, the state or federal government would have to provide the funding; something which they are most likely unwilling to do.
There was also something that I never heard before were the terms saints, sinners, and savables, which someone with Summit County referred to as describing the workforce population that needs to be helped by such a workforce plan. Saveables include the underemployed, or those working two part-time jobs to make a full-time wage just to get by. There are currently some programs to address such workers’ needs. As Mr. Revoldt said, in Stark, there is a program which can move people like this into full time jobs. They even find head hunters for the participants.
One of other things our group agreed upon was a lack of public transportation, particularly commuter rail, in the region outside old fixed networks such at RTA in Cleveland. One of our group, who happens to be with an organization called All Aboard Ohio, raised the point that Cleveland is the only major city in the Western Hemisphere that has only one rapid transit station it its’ downtown. Since those most likely to benefit from a workforce development program rely on public transit the most, it seems very important that money is invested in the network.
Another issue everyone agreed upon is the need for some type of CCC or WPA style program to get the unemployed or chronic job seekers back into the workforce, and build worthwhile projects in the process. It was unanimous in the belief that such a program would be labor intensive. Demonstration projects could be done to show how such a new program can work (with the Fed involved and providing funds).. A county WPA, say operated by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), can be such a model.
When you look at Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s books, for example, there is absolutely no guarantee that the vast majority of Americans will find the jobs that our parents and grandparents had 45 years ago. It is also possible that many of the jobs will have lower wages due to the number of applicants vying for these positions. Will money put into higher education, let alone community colleges, be worth the long term investment for these students?
One wonders if it’s all worth it? As Mr. Shahahan himself admitted, job recovery in Northeast Ohio has been sluggish at best. There has been a very poor rebound in many sectors, including IT (which is anemic).The picture is not good that workforce development can increase the number of jobs. The vast amount of hires in this area are to replace jobs vacated by workers who go to other jobs; there is no real job creation. Can a region like Northeast Ohio rely on one or two centers of excellence (on an innovation district for that matter) to generate the number of jobs needed for its’ residents; especially with talent coming in from other parts of the country?
I was discussing this with a friend on the phone Saturday. A former Wickliffe Ohio councilperson, she told me the forum sounded like again re-inventing the wheel, unless the folks in Columbus or Capitol Hill give the money necessary to implement any of these measures proposed. “I think they should go down to Columbus and Washington yelling and screaming,” she told me “all we need is the money and no one wants to part with it. Nobody wants to raise taxes.” Of course this is just one part of the problem but still significant.
This past Friday, I went out to Concord Ohio to attend a planning and zoning workshop. Out there at the Lake Metroparks Environmental Learning Center, there were a few presentations that in fact tied into what happened the week before. Rob Ziol of Cleveland State University (of all places) gave a very good one on leadership and collaboration. While he started out talking about the programs offered by my alma mater, Ziol went on into programs related to workforce development. For example, Metrohealth Hospitals recently announced it is bringing in high school students into two year study programs where they get on the job skills in the health profession. This is something that many at the Workforce Forum would have used as an example of what they want done areawide. In fact, it seems that GE does the same thing at their Nela Park facility. He also provided some interesting links for those in public service like myself.
Having a comprehensive regional plan, be it workforce development, resilient cities, or community planning, is only good if it can be translated into effective programs that have a real impact on people outside a conference room. If that small company in Wooster gets money from the State or the Feds to hire two interns from Stark State to learn a full-time job that pays at least $15 an hour with benefits, that can be a success story.
Photographs by James Valentino