Slate of Efforts at YSU Aim to Ready Workforce for Next-Gen Jobs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In the estimation of Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, the Mahoning Valley has the three ingredients needed for a “thriving modern economy” – innovation, investment and talent. 

As he visited the Excellence Training Center under construction at Youngstown State University, he used the development as a highlight of the Mahoning Valley’s workforce initiatives that will help the region take full advantage of the burgeoning electric vehicle industry.

“Projects like this are going to help prepare the workforce that are being created and will exist in the new economy. If you don’t prepare the people for the jobs that are coming, they’ll be left behind,” Husted said. “You can’t invite businesses to a community without a trained workforce. Your community can’t thrive without people who have good, high-paying jobs. Skills training and education are foundational to being able to accomplish that.”

Following the unveiling of the state’s $1 billion plan to kickstart the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic at the start of the month, Husted said that among its cornerstones is job training and expanding broadband access across the state, two crucial parts of ensuring people are not only ready for jobs but can also apply for them.

“It’s important that we come out of this pandemic stronger than other states and other countries. We have to make the right investments to do that,” he said Tuesday. 

Set to open in the spring, the Excellence Training Center will be YSU’s latest foray into workforce development and a major part of its suite that also includes a partnership with IBM for the IT Workforce Accelerator and the recently announced YSU Energy Storage and Innovation Training Center. When it opens, the Excellence Training Center will provide space for jobs training, primarily in manufacturing, and to help entrepreneurs commercialize their ideas.

Youngstown State isn’t working on the $14 million project alone. Local partners include Eastern Gateway Community College, America Makes, the Youngstown Business Incubator, Choffin Career Center, Youngstown City Schools and the career and technical centers for Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Among those who will take part once it’s completed are ExOne Co., the Department of Defense and the Air Force.

The Excellence Training Center at Youngstown State is under construction and should be open by the spring.

“We’re coming together to think about how we can work together to provide all levels of workforce and the research to make sure we’re on the cutting-edge of what needs to be done in our Valley and the entire state,” said Youngstown State President Jim Tressel. “What we’re trying to create, both with this Excellence Training Center and some of the training programs we’re doing specifically for the Voltage Valley, is a way to provide all of the credentials and upgrades people need.”

Part of the funding for the Energy Storage and Innovation Center comes via YSU’s $5 million allotment from the state’s clawback of tax credits awarded to General Motors while it operated the Lordstown Assembly. 

The announcement that GM was idling the plant came weeks after Husted and Gov. Mike DeWine won the election. In the two months between the announcement and their swearing in, the pair worked with the automaker to make a case for investing in the Valley. At the time, at least locally, it was seen as an ending.

Now, a little more than two years later, the atmosphere has shifted considerably. The Ultium Cells battery plant, the result of a partnership between GM and LG Chem, is under construction while Lordstown Motors Corp. is nearing the beginning of its Endurance electric pickup truck in the former GM assembly plant.

“When we get bad news, you say, ‘OK, how am I going to recover?’ We immediately started working with General Motors to figure out how we’d make lemonade out of lemons,” Husted said. “And we did.”

The Energy Storage Center, a partnership between the university and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will provide training for the battery manufacturing industry, tying into the Ultium Cells plant under construction in Lordstown. Offering few details, Tressel pointed to a possible satellite site for the center in Trumbull County, closer to Lordstown Motors, Ultium and Brite Energy Innovators, the state’s only energy storage business incubator.

“What a great thing to have in an area that truly wants to be the Voltage Valley. It’s going to position Youngstown State as a leader in workforce training and it’s going to help the state in its effort to make the Mahoning Valley a leader in electric vehicle production,” said Ohio Development Services Agency director Lydia Mihalik.

Ohio Development Services Agency director Lydia Mihalik

While much of the cost for the Excellence Training Center comes from the installation of machinery used for training – $10 million – Tressel said the center will be able to adapt to new workforce demands as they start appearing. And through collaboration with other education institutions, YSU can help craft workers for nearly any demand.

“You can get into specific programs like accounting or business while also having experience in a trade to balance out a career,” said Art Daly, vice president of Eastern Gateway’s Youngstown campus. “You may be coming into the field as a technician, but [that experience] gives you the skills to advance in management and supervisory roles that need those business backgrounds. That’s part of this growing trend of skills training with management capabilities. It develops a more well-rounded individual.”

The funding from the GM clawback is also supporting further workforce development initiatives, such as the creation of a “virtual career fair,” a website made in collaboration between YSU, Ultium and OhioMeansJobs that will connect job-seekers with careers and training opportunities.

“Through the GM community investment, the center will be working to stand up programs focused on equity and inclusion, where everybody has the opportunity to access and participate,” said Jennifer Oddo, executive director of the YSU Center for Workforce Education and Innovation. “We know that many of our underserved are unemployed, feeling the effects of our pandemic, or are underemployed. We need to do more to remove the barriers to help those people compete and win in the race to employability.”

Reaching those people – those aren’t already connected with Youngstown State, Eastern Gateway or other training programs – is the biggest challenge of what the partners are trying to accomplish, Tressel said. Already, university officials have met with community groups and, once the center opens, will be in touch with “everyone who reaches people and could send someone online to get started.”

All of these efforts together, Lt. Gov. Husted said, can establish the Mahoning Valley as a destination for companies.

“It’s all of these things working together to build the workforce of the future so people earn more and have more opportunities. When businesses look from the inside and ask, ‘Where in the world can I put my business? Where in this country? Where in this state? Why should I put it here?’ ” Husted said. 

“With these kinds of initiatives, you can tell them why. It’s the right workforce with the right skills that can compete with anyone else in the world.”

Pictured at top: Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and YSU President Jim Tressel tour the construction site for the Excellence Training Center on YSU campus with Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.