Execs Discuss Workforce, Taxes, Trade with Portman

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Trade and workforce issues dominated the conversation at a panel discussion U.S. Sen. Rob Portman held with local business leaders Tuesday morning.

Portman, R-Ohio, was joined by about two dozen executives of companies affiliated with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber to discuss a range of issues that included the impact of federal tax reform, tariffs and the challenges of finding qualified workers.

Among the topics Portman discussed was the new federal opportunity zones, which are designed to encourage investment and job creation in low-income communities. Fifteen Mahoning Valley census tracts were designated in April as opportunity zones.

The Treasury Department recently came out with regulations regarding the zones, Portman said. The zones include downtown Warren, the “Golden Triangle” industrial sector in Trumbull County, the U.S. Route 422 corridor, downtown Youngstown, Andrews Avenue, Salt Springs Road corridor, Performance Place, Casey Industrial Park, downtown Struthers and Castlo Industrial Park, and the Meridian Road corridor.

“Suffice it to say we got a lot because we’ve got some areas that are in need of more economic development,” Portman said.

Portman praised other aspects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed last December, including the lower rates for businesses and individuals. During the first quarter of the year, domestic. companies repatriated some $320 billion here, he noted.

“We felt the relief from that absolutely,” said Regina Mitchell, former president of Warren Fabricating & Machining Corp. and Ohio Steel Sheet & Plate, Hubbard. The company is investing in new equipment and was able to offer a 2% cost-of-living raise to employees, as well as maintain 100% paid health benefits.

Mitchell thanked Portman for co-authoring and sponsoring the Leveling the Playing Field Act, which “changed the game” for companies in the steel service industry by imposing tariffs on raw materials coming into the country, but also called on him to take the message back to Washington that tariffs need to be imposed on finished goods as well. If tariffs can’t be imposed, then restrictions need to be imposed that require minimum wages to be paid by companies manufacturing those finished products.

“We’ve seen almost all of our power generation work go overseas” to competitors that are subsidized by the Chinese government, Mitchell reported.

“One of the big disappointments with the Lordstown power plants is that we build the equipment that went into those power plants, and all of that equipment sourced by Siemens was built in Korea, so we didn’t even have the opportunity to quote that work that went right into our backyard,” she lamented. “I still struggle with, as far as a national security risk, why we are allowing the Chinese and Korean governments to build our power generation equipment here in America. If that’s not a national security risk, I really don’t know what is.”

Mary Ann Billet, human resource manager for the Brilex Group of Companies, was among those who expressed interest in the opportunity zones.

“We struggle, like many others here, with the skilled trades,” she added.

Portman is seeking to permit federal Pell grants to be allowed to pay for skills training. Many individuals who spend Pell grants to go to college but don’t end up with a degree would be more successful in a short-term training program, he said.

“I could spend all day long trying to hire Regina [Mitchell]’s employees and she could spend all day trying to hire mine, but at the end of the day we have the same amount of employees,” said Ryan Engelhardt, plant manager at Taylor-Winfield Technologies, a Brilex company. That doesn’t grow the workforce so allowing Pell Grants to be used for skills training would help, he said.

“The most significant challenge we face is workforce,” finding people who are not only trained but who have the “desire and inclination to work in a manufacturing environment,” said Rick Organ, president and CEO of Hynes Industries. “We have to get back to the days when technical school and vocational education was honored.”

Organ was among several participants who complained about the lack of emphasis on the skilled trades in the schools. Vocational education or skills training in the past often was seen as less glamorous than college or the path for underachievers.

“A lot of it is parents,” Portman said. People need to overcome past attitudes about the skilled trades, which enable young workers tor earn $50,000 or more in their first year. “It’s not off track. It’s really on track,” the senator said.

The Mahoning Valley Innovation and Commercialization Center now being developed by local partners is intended to leverage resources for training from certificates to master’s degrees, said Mike Hripko, associate vice president for external affairs, government relations and economic development at Youngstown State University. The goal is to create “an ecosystem that looks a lot like our factories’ dynamic” replicated in an educational setting, he said.

“Rather than compete against each other for the same pie, we want to work with the manufacturers and the career centers and the community colleges to make a bigger pie,” he said. “If we have a bigger pie then you’ll all have the workers you need.”

In addition, having trained more workers will attract employers, Hripko said.

Portman agreed.

“If the workforce isn’t here, the investment won’t be made here,” he said.

Jean Gaetano, spokeswoman for Vallourec Star, expressed her appreciation to Portman for his civility and said she wished the senator could influence the tone in Washington.

Portman said he is sometimes criticized by colleagues for not being “voluble enough,” which he said isn’t his job.

“My job is to figure out how to get things done,” he said. “You don’t create results for the American people by engaging in this division.”

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Pictured: U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, addressed a panel of the area’s business leaders, including Judson Wallace, CEO and president of Vallourec Star, and Regina Mitchell, former president of Warren Fabricating & Machining Corp. and Ohio Steel Sheet & Plate, Hubbard.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.