Column: We Built It and ‘They’ Are Coming

By Gerri Jenkins

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – We have all heard the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”  I will take that maxim one step further: “If you want something done right, build partnerships.”

Let’s go back to 2020, when the pandemic threw a wrench into so many plans and ways of doing business and providing an education for grades K-20. We are still recovering. Students at all levels lost valuable instruction time and employers cannot find enough workers.

Fast forward to 2023. Students are back in school. But, in many cases, are still behind academically. College enrollment, while starting to tick up, is still below expectations, especially in the urban districts. And employers still need workers.

Enter Youngstown Works, a consortium of nonprofits and educational institutions that provides connections between their students and clients and employers. The goal is to give residents access to career pathways that provide sustainable wages and benefits.

The first financial support for Youngstown Works came in 2021 from the city. These funds supported efforts to create a consortium of nonprofits and organizations that help formerly incarcerated people re-enter the workplace. United Returning Citizens and the Community Corrections Association were in the initial group, which began meeting in the summer of 2021.

While we were trying to figure out who we were as an organization, an overwhelming sense of urgency took hold and we decided to organize our first hiring event. We partnered with the Ohio to Work program and chose Stambaugh Auditorium because it was directly on the WRTA bus line. We selected the date of March 29, 2022. 

As reservations came in, it became obvious that this event was going to fill the auditorium ballroom to capacity – and it did. The first event featured many consortium members and providers of resources as well as employers in manufacturing, logistics, health care and food services (not fast food). Some 300 people came through. 

Everyone seemed satisfied but we knew we could do better. Once the Ohio to Work effort ended, we partnered directly with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. In addition to continued financial support from the city, we also secured sponsorships, which helped to support the next Youngstown Works events–Oct. 4, 2022, and April 25, 2023. These events featured more employers and educational institutions and we saw more than 250 job seekers come through. High schools brought their graduating seniors and organizations brought those in their career-based intervention programs.

Our most recent event took place, again at Stambaugh Auditorium, on Oct. 11. We counted 375 job seekers who came through. Youngstown State University brought 150 students including December 2023 graduates. Community Corrections and United Returning Citizens brought 50 clients, most of whom made at least two contacts. It was a diverse group ranging in age from young adults to baby boomers. Our survey results, with an 89% return rate, indicated that employers plan to contact 272 of those in attendance.

Youngstown Works has made a positive, measurable impact. But there is much work to do. Youngstown Works must become Mahoning Valley Works. We cannot afford to lose residents at the current rate, when so much business is coming to the Valley. Employers also need to commit to interviewing people who complete training programs. We have the potential employees and the infrastructure. We must do better.

Editor’s Note: The author is executive director of MyPath Mahoning Valley and founder of Youngstown Works.