Brain Gain: Changing the Way We See Ourselves

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Business language changes, methods evolve and historical perceptions can either paralyze or propel people. 

Over the years, many studies, groups and leaders have addressed the urgency of economic development and creating methods to keep our children from leaving the region. But determining outcomes, effecting best practices and leveraging our combined efforts rarely occurred. 

More than four decades after Black Monday – when 5,000 steel workers were left jobless overnight – the Mahoning Valley teeters as a tale of two cities. The first is a manufacturing melting pot that can’t outrun its shadow of demise. The second is a limitless future with additive manufacturing and technology interlaced with smaller – but numerous – manufacturing shops.

Capturing ideas, harnessing dialogue from a cross-section of students, business and community leaders into a digital destination with resources and educational tools is the change agenda set forth in our 15-month series Brain Gain: Building a Culture of Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development. The program is conceived as an advocacy platform for the limitless future that will keep our children here, attract talent and develop our workforce. 

When Jihad Esmail graduated from Liberty High School, he couldn’t wait to put the area in his rearview mirror. He headed to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. 

“I didn’t believe there was anything here for me,” says the third-year college student. “I didn’t see my face here.” 

Esmail returned, however, this summer for an internship at the Youngstown Business Incubator. 

“After my experience at YBI, I may change my mind,” he says. “There are so many great things happening at YBI that I never knew existed.”

In starting a comprehensive examination of the region’s efforts to reverse brain drain, it is clear that organizations, companies, businesses, leaders, educational institutions and others already are on a path to create Brain Gain. 

Changing perceptions of our region both internally and externally is the first step. 

“We have always picked ourselves up by our bootstraps and need to continue moving our business forward,” says James Dignan, CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “We need to come together as a Valley with one voice and have our businesses and schools dictate the terms.”

Reaching Children at Earlier Ages

Brain Gain sponsors and collaborators agree that exposure to widespread career paths needs to reach children at earlier ages. 

One partnership leading the way is the Mahoning Valley Manufacturing Coalition, says its executive director, Jessica Borza. 

The coalition comprises 45 manufacturing companies. Its foundational work was to save educational and training programs on the brink of closing because of a lack of enrollment and funding. 

The coalition engaged in talks with educators to update curricula to align with modern manufacturing skills and technology for high school students to seamlessly transition to advanced technical training centers. Members also worked to make curriculum consistent in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties for students pursuing industry credentials or apprenticeships.

Efforts are also underway to educate younger children about manufacturing and trades before they enter high school. 

Dominic Cooper spent part of his junior year studying in Italy. Entering his senior year at Canfield, he decided to spend it at Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. 

The decision upset his parents because they wanted him to go to college and couldn’t understand his reasoning. “They were so mad that they didn’t have a graduation party for me,” Cooper says.

Before entering MCCTC, he says he didn’t even know how to save files on a computer. He now has his own company that builds websites.

Dominic Cooper of Canfield studied at MCCTC his senior year so he could learn practical skills and apply them immediately to start his own company. 

Cooper explains that teachers at the career and tech center helped him outside of his general curriculum with answers that applied to him getting a job. “They helped out in directing my life,” he says. “I wasn’t just taking a class for a grade, but taking it to make money,” he says.

Changing stereotypes about technical and trade schools is a goal for educators, industry and career counselors, Borza says. 

According to the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, the average income for an experienced manufacturing employee is $69,454, and manufacturing contributes $2.6 billion to the Mahoning and Shenango valley economies.

Borza says the top three priorities identified as needs by manufacturing companies are machining, industrial maintenance and welding.

Poised for Their Futures

Developments in technology and additive manufacturing using efforts underway at the YBI and America Makes, and research and development at Youngstown State University have propelled the region far beyond what people here realize, but what others around the world know, says Jim Cossler, Huntington Bank Entrepreneur-in -Residence. 

“Students are in one of the luckiest places in the world here in Youngstown with higher education at Youngstown State and down the street is the Youngstown Business Incubator – the best in world,” confirms Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel. 

Testament to that is Fitz Frames, a company developed in Silicon Valley and manufactures its product in the Mahoning Valley using 3D printing. 

The company provides eyeglasses for children. Customers can download a digital application, take a photo of a child’s face and exact measurements are taken for a customized fit. Kids can choose from frames in a virtual store and see how they would look. 

The Fitz website states the difference in the frames is 3D-printing magic: “Each pair is built at our facility in Youngstown, Ohio.”

The incubator also hosts gBeta, a nationally ranked accelerator generator program. It is a free seven-week program for early-stage companies.

Training for additive manufacturing is also done at the incubator as well as robotic and automation work that manufacturers want to offer in advanced training.

Manufacturing Jobs Are Plentiful

Large-scale factories employing thousands of workers may not be the region’s future landscape, but that doesn’t mean good manufacturing jobs don’t exist.  

“I’d rather have 50 companies with 100 employees and multiple products and consumers than one main manufacturer dependent on one product,” says Eastern Gateway Community College Youngstown Campus vice president Arthur Daly.

MVMC’s Borza explains that manufacturing jobs are plentiful in the region, so much so that the number of students, apprenticeships and workforce training programs underway still would not fill the number of job openings.

Traci Hostetler, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, agrees that children need to be introduced to manufacturing and skilled trades at a younger age. 

“We’re reaching out to students in third, fourth, fifth grades and their parents, who are an important part of this equation, to help them understand that exciting careers exist here in manufacturing and skilled trades,” Hostetler says.

Jessica Borza, director of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, says there are more manufacturing jobs available than students to fill them. 

Giving children the opportunity for hands-on experience is important, she says. That’s why the first Mahoning Valley Skilled Trades Expo was held Sept. 26 the Canfield Fairgrounds. The Western Reserve Building Trades Council, along with the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, the Regional Chamber and a host of partners and sponsors, is trying to reach younger students to expose them to working with their hands and the available opportunities.

That also was the goal for Manufacturers Coalition when it partnered with Oh Wow! The Roger and Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science and Technology and the Mahoning Educational Service Center to host a Make It, Take It activity at the Canfield Fair where 250 children worked with volunteers to make handheld fans.

MVMC’s Career Pathway Ambassadors from Brilex Industries, Vallourec Steel, Pennex Aluminum Co. and Hynes Industries led students through reading blueprints to building and understanding the circuit to final assembly of the fans. 

When Ryan Englehardt of Brilex Industries hit the switch on a fan created by 4-year-old Owen Stivers, the preschool boy smiled. “That what’s it’s all about – the smiles,” Englehardt says. “We want to expose kids to building things, skilled trades and manufacturing careers.”

For Stivers and other kids, it was the first time they had built something. Owen’s mother, Diana, also smiled when her youngest son ran over to show her what he made. “This is great to show kids about trades and skills,” she says. 

That is the response Englehardt was hoping for when he created the display with Ralf Urbach, director of education at Oh Wow, the children’s science museum in downtown Youngstown.

“Oh Wow preaches engagement, whether we can engage with a child, students, people around science,” Urbach says. “We also promote that it’s OK to fail; because then you modify. That’s how we all learn.”

Lilly Forlina, 9, of Canfield, said she, too, liked building a fan. She studied intently as Thomas Benyo of Brilex Industries explained the circuit. She actively assembled the soft-sponge fan blades and put on the finishing touches. Lilly, who attended the fair with her brother and grandmother, said she likes science. 

Plans to Succeed

With the success of the inaugural Make It, Take It event, MVMC plans to use the activity in schools, and at its Cutting Edge Manufacturing event Oct. 15 at Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. The event will have manufacturing and skilled-trades vendors with hands-on activities for middle school students to engage in and take tours of the center.

The Regional Chamber’s Dignan says his organization draws on its member and partner strengths, and other area business leaders for ideas and discussions.

Dignan has been meeting with leaders from the Shenango Valley and Lawrence County chambers for more than a year about attracting and retaining the next-generation workforce and creating an entrepreneur-friendly community.

The discussions have led the three chambers to host a five-county, two-state summit. Rising Rust Belt: A Regional Revitalization Economic Summit in Sharon, Pa., Oct. 6 and 7. FirstEnergy is sponsoring the summit and it will focus on Rust Belt-specific problem-solving results.

Other initiatives are building networking capabilities with entrepreneurs who grew up here but have left the area and now work at large-scale national companies, says the YBI’s Cossler. 

“We have built a network of successful people from Youngstown who we can tap into or who are giving something back,” he says. “We literally have people all over the world that we can benefit from their expertise. Companies from Israel, Belgium, France are doing business right here and accessing our young talent.”

For Dignan, changing the region’s perception entails highlighting the strength of our manufacturing history and strong work ethic to write the story of our future. 

As Winston Churchill said: “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” 

Pictured above: Lilly Forlina builds her fan with a little help from Thomas Benyo of Brilex Industries. The Make It, Take It activity introduces kids to skill sets.

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