In downtown Columbus last week, over four hundred business and industry leaders, educators, state policymakers, and advocates convened for Aim Hire, a day-long conference focused on workforce development. The event was hosted by Ohio Excels, a new non-profit coalition of business leaders dedicated to educational improvement, and the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation on the heels of the state’s In-Demand Jobs Week. Here’s a look at a few of the big takeaways from the conference.

The big picture

Kyle Hartung, the director of Pathways to Prosperity at Jobs for the Future, opened the event by discussing why improved connections between education and the workforce are so important. One reason is lackluster post-secondary outcomes. At the national level, high school graduation rates are sky high but college completion rates are alarming low. More low-income students are going to college than before, but the percentage who go on to graduate has remained mostly flat. Ohio-specific data aren’t much better. The number of working-age adults who have a postsecondary credential has increased in the last decade, but not at a fast enough rate to satisfy employer demand. In Ohio, 56 percent of in-demand jobs require postsecondary credentials, but only 43 percent of the population have one.

Another reason is technology. The economy and the types of work available are changing rapidly due to automation and other advancements, and in-demand workplace skills are proving difficult to teach in traditional classrooms. Hartung’s solution is to expand access to work-based learning, which allows students to master academic and technical skills in a real-world setting. But he also touted the need for cross sector partnerships between K12, business and industry, government agencies, colleges, afterschool networks, and community-based organizations. He also noted that two-year colleges could be “the key” to improving attainment, as they serve younger students and adults, are already deeply engaged with employers, and are generally focused on specific regional areas.

Growing opportunities in Ohio’s education sector

Participants on an education-focused panel highlighted several initiatives that are already underway in Ohio, including partnerships between businesses, nonprofits, and education institutions. For example, a Family Career Awareness Day in Marietta gives seventh through twelfth graders the opportunity to learn about careers in their surrounding community, and Tiffin City Schools boasts a college-and-career-readiness program taught by volunteers from the business sector.

Despite this promising work, Ohio struggles to get youngsters onto in-demand pathways, and—not surprisingly—businesses face significant supply shortages. When asked how schools could help solve the supply side of the problem, Pamela Lankford from Building Bridges to Careers explained that student surveys conducted locally over the last ten years indicate that personal experience is the number-one contributing factor for which career students choose to pursue. “If kids don’t get that experience,” she said, “they won’t go down that pathway.” Providing students with the opportunity to participate in multiple career-related experiences and engaging with employers so that they offer those experiences are key.

The responsibility of businesses

Immediately following the education discussion was a panel featuring leaders from a diverse group of businesses. Lana Hillebrand, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at AEP, noted that, when it comes to addressing workforce needs, it’s important for employers to be proactive. Businesses have a responsibility to their customers and communities to develop robust talent pipelines, and that means partnering with education institutions so that they can leverage their expertise. When asked about attracting top-tier talent to Ohio, panelists acknowledged that it can be difficult to compete with places like Silicon Valley, New York, and D.C. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Alex Derkson from JPMorgan Chase noted that Ohio has plenty going for it, including an attractive cost of living and great colleges and universities. When prompted for ideas about how smaller businesses could lure talented employees, Derkson pointed out the importance of consortia and partnerships, which can “share the work” of identifying solutions. 

A changing state demands changing policies

Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted was also in attendance, and he didn’t mince words about the importance of workforce development. “The future of our state and our economy depends on it,” he said. “Over the next ten years in Ohio, demographic projections say that we will lose more people from our workforce than we will gain. More people will turn sixty-five than will turn eighteen. We have the challenge to make sure that the people who follow have the right kind of skills…and the states that do this right will be the ones that prosper.” He pointed out that the economy has shifted from focusing on natural resources and proximity to prioritizing knowledge, which “can exist anywhere. It’s not bound by geographic barriers.” To address this change and its implications for the future, the new administration is focusing on early childhood education, wraparound services, and industry-recognized credentials.

Partnerships for the future

Eric Burkland, President of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, offered up a succinct analysis of why workforce development is so important: “We are facing right now a set of interactive, global trends that nobody prepared us for in manufacturing and other professions. I don’t think we think too much about how new this globalization is. But it is new…so it’s creating all kinds of strains and all kinds of uncertainties. But those pressures are also a great opportunity.”

Several on-the-ground partnerships are already taking advantage of these opportunities. Jessica Borza, Executive Director of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturing Coalition, spoke about how her members have worked with both K12 and postsecondary institutions to leverage industry-recognized credentials. She explained that, in the past, career centers used vastly different standards and curricula, so employers struggled to find graduates who had similar skill sets and competencies. But by aligning curricula, apprenticeships, work-based learning opportunities, and other offerings with industry-recognized credentials, the coalition has been able to establish better alignment between systems and ensure that student skills are validated. Even better, students have the opportunity to earn the same amount of college credit regardless of where they earn their credential.

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Overall, the conference struck a nice balance between celebrating what’s worked so far and acknowledging that the state still has plenty of room for improvement. Perhaps the biggest takeaway of the day came from David Harrison, President of Columbus State Community College and the Central Ohio Compact. He advised conference attendees to maintain a bias toward intentional action. “This is messy work,” he said. “But students need us to figure this out. So jump in and get started.”

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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