YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — When General Motors announced in November 2018 it would shutter its plant in Lordstown, Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, said the region would be able to support some of the individuals who would lose their jobs.
The closing, in March 2019, displaced some 4,300 GM workers and caused a ripple effect that saw another 3,300 unemployed from local suppliers.
Had the General Motors Lordstown plant closed 20 years ago, however, the impact would have been much more significant to the supply chain and service providers, Boyarko said.
During a panel discussion Friday with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell (RELATED STORY), Boyarko shared how collaborative efforts between local development officials, business and community leaders, elected officials and the community at large softened the blow. By working together to diversify the community “and our driver industries,” the region ensured there are still job opportunities for Mahoning Valley residents, she said.
Economic disruption is nothing new to the Mahoning Valley. From the exodus of the steel industry to current challenges posed by shutdowns brought about by the pandemic, “Few regions have been called on to be resilient as often as Youngstown has been,” said Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
The Cleveland Fed hosted the discussion, which was moderated by Mester. (VIDEO EXCERPTS ABOVE)
“The pandemic has deeply wounded the U.S. economy because of the need to shut down or curtail the operations of many businesses,” Mester said. “And that has been a very widespread and intense level of pain.”
Before the virus, the U.S. economy was “in a good place,” experiencing the longest expansion on record and historic 50-year lows in unemployment, said Chairman Powell. That was a national average, however, and the pandemic has exposed “stark realities” of inequity across the country, he said.
“Economic good fortune had eluded pockets across the country, including to a significant extent, Youngstown,” Powell said. “Conversations like this are incredibly valuable to us because they give us context to some of the data, and definition to this huge U.S. economy that we have. And they also help us solve problems on a practical level.”
For the virtual panel, Boyarko was joined by Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition Executive Director Jessica Borza, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, Youngstown Business Incubator Director of Diversity and Inclusion Carmella Williams, and Nick Chretien, program manager at Economic Action Group Inc.
In the immediate aftermath of GM’s closing, Boyarko said the chamber compiled a list of more than 100 area companies with job openings, along with education and training providers and contacts at the Ohio Small Business Development Center at YSU and the Minority Business Assistance Center at the YBI.
Similarly, the manufacturers coalition connected displaced workers with its members in need of skilled workers displaced by GM, Borza related. Many were able to transition easily and make an “immediate impact in their companies.”
Others took advantage of earn-and-learn programs so there was no disruption in their income while they learned new skills.
“The headlines that come out of the GM closure became a real headwind for us,” Borza said. “As we’re trying to get the word out in the community about the good jobs and career pathways that exist in manufacturing, it’s difficult to compete against the reality that we did have significant job loss here.”
Like the closure of GM Lordstown, the pandemic shined a light on how interconnected the Mahoning Valley economy is. Mayor Brown noted that the economic impact of Lordstown was regional, so it took a regional effort to mitigate it.
While the cities, organizations and educational institutions rallied to sustain the workforce and build it up, the region became “a team of rivals,” he said.
“We’ve put aside our differences,” said Brown, noting he works closely with the Regional Chamber, the Western Reserve Port Authority, YSU, Eastern Gateway Community College, Western Reserve Transit Authority and the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.
Boyarko and Borza lauded efforts made by EGCC and YSU to provide educational opportunities to the displaced Lordstown workers, including a free tuition program at EGCC. The manufacturers coalition worked with YSU and career and technical centers to develop training programs aligned with competencies needed by regional manufacturers, Borza said.
Powell noted it is unusual that so much demand for high-skilled manufacturing workers still exists in the Valley. In other parts of the country, manufacturing “has dwindled and is no longer a major force.” he said.
“It sounds like in the Mahoning Valley, you’ve actually got ongoing demand, which is a great thing. Because manufacturing jobs are really important,” the Fed chairman said.
Borza replied that she still sees opportunities to employ students coming out of post-secondary education as well as the career and tech centers.
“We are serving as a feedback loop between our education partners and our workforce partners in industry to make sure that supply and demand is balanced out,” Borza said of the manufacturers coalition.
That led to working with YSU to lay the groundwork for what will become the Excellence Training Center, an advanced manufacturing education and workforce training facility on the YSU campus.
It began as the Mahoning Valley Innovation Commercialization Consortium between the coalition, YSU, EGCC, career and tech centers, the city of Youngstown, YBI and America Makes. Funding from the Ohio Economic Development Association and the Appalachian Regional Commission, as well as the YSU Foundation, put shovels in the ground for the 55,000-square-foot center, which will be complete next year, Tressel said.
The center will focus on workforce, research and commercialization and prototyping, “and some low-volume manufacturing,” including CNC and manual machining, sheet metal stamping and cutting, CNC woodshop and industrial maintenance.
“What we’re trying to create is the whole continuum,” Tressel said. “And our goal is to see if we can get our young people excited about what’s right here at Youngstown State or Eastern Gateway Community College, what’s exciting about going to one of the career and tech centers, [and] what are those opportunities that can grow from that.”
That type of collaboration was a boon during the pandemic. Borza cited the efforts of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association and the Ohio Hospital Association in establishing the Repurposing Project, in which they identified needs for personal protective equipment, manufacturing supply chains that could be repurposed and worked with regional partnerships to help the companies “re-engineer themselves so they could address the most critical needs for Ohio,” she said.
While the coronavirus took its toll on some businesses, “For a lot of companies, it has been business as usual or exploring additional opportunities,” Boyarko said.
Each week, chamber staff talks with 50 to 75 businesses inquiring about retention and expansion efforts coming out of the pandemic, she said. Thus, the chamber partnered with its board to create the Emerge program that offers assistance to businesses coming out of the pandemic.
Virtual roundtables enabled manufacturers and educators to establish safety protocols and best practices, Borza added. Roundtable participants, who are competitors in the marketplace, shared standard operating procedures and discussed immediate concerns such as safety, social distancing and paycheck protection program loan forgiveness, she said.
Having those conversations between manufacturers and educators established efficiencies in everybody’s planning so nobody was recreating the wheel, she said.
“Our model of manufacturers working with education and workforce and economic development partners in a sector partnership has been replicated across the state of Ohio,” Borza said. “And the Ohio Manufacturers Association has networked us all together and worked in places in Ohio where there wasn’t such a partnership.”
Coming out of the pandemic, manufacturers “know they’re going to be in a position to hire again,” she said. To keep the workforce pipeline open, the coalition is preparing for accelerated training in technologies such as automation and robotics. The group has started down that path collaborating with EGCC and career centers, and is working to ensure they bring on the right instructors, credentials, curriculum and equipment while collaborating with YSU and the Excellence Center.
The coalition also looks to ramp up outreach efforts with organizations such as Goodwill and Community Action Partnership.
“We know we don’t have enough women and people of color in manufacturing, and we want to make sure that we continue to be intentional about that,” she said.