Joe Swora moved to the region because of his wife’s career. Over a 13-year-period, he couldn’t find a job in Lima.
“People would ask me: ‘Why are you so dissatisfied with living in Lima?’ Because I can’t find a job here,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Swora didn’t work. He instead opted for hour-long commutes, holding positions in Findlay, Tiffin and Troy. Today, Swora and his wife now live in Columbus.
For those like Swora — white-collar professionals focusing on their careers — the right job can be hard to find in Lima, even if there are 1,500 jobs available within a 10-mile radius.
But Swora’s story is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. Among financial headwinds and generational trends, digging into the reason why someone like Swora gave up on Lima exposes oncoming changes in the workplace that many are already preparing for.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’
Understanding why someone like Swora moved to Columbus after living 13 years in Lima first requires taking a broader look at Allen County’s industrial strengths.
Like many other regions in the rust belt, Allen County grafted its local economy on a manufacturing backbone in the early 20th century. Due to the influence of manufacturers and the oil industry, the small city’s population exploded by drawing those willing to put in the hours for a good paycheck. In 2019, that same general idea stands, and manufacturing remains as Lima’s strongest economic sector, comprising roughly 40 percent of the county’s total GDP, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Additionally, many ancillary jobs rely on serving its workers.
A good example of this is the regional logistics and trucking industry, which is currently pleading for new truck drivers by posting more than 100 “help wanted” ads every day over a two-year-period just in the eight-county region.
Other strong industries that popped up as Lima’s population grew include healthcare, retail, food service and financial companies. But manufacturing remains the primary economic driver in the region, and much of the region’s economic development efforts focus on attracting and retaining manufacturing companies.
For the early decades of the 20th century leading up to the 1970s, Lima rode the upward swell produced by manufacturing, but then a confluence of national trends — primarily globalization, trade agreements and automation — ended up cutting off that growth. From 1980 to the Great Recession, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States fell by 8 million.
Enter the Millennials
The generational cohort who entered the workforce during the Great Recession found a much different economy than those who first moved to Lima in the 20th century, and they shifted their career plans accordingly. At that time, many young opted out of entering the workforce immediately by heading off to college. Enrollment rates across the country jumped, and many local colleges hit all-time highs in the number of students on campus.
Millennials became the most highly educated generation, just as Gen Xers and Boomers had done 20 and 40 years ago. Today, one in four employed 25- to 29-year-olds in the United States currently have bachelor’s degrees, according to the Pew Research Center. But in Allen County, educational attainment rates remain relatively low. The reason is purely economic.
“The industries we have just haven’t needed highly educated workers compared to the big cities,” Bluffton University economics professor Jonathan Andreas said. “One of the things about big cities, they have the sort of creative jobs, like in advertising, the financial jobs, the management jobs, they’ve been going to bigger cities.”
Companies also were squeezed and shuffled during the Great Recession, with many middle managers being cut out of the mix altogether or laid off during mergers, Andreas said.
A look at the number and type of help wanted ads posted online also gives some statistical evidence of what kind of jobs are available in the region. For programmers and engineers — two occupations that require a degree of some sort — the job market looks good in Allen County thanks to 3,735 and 2,878 unique jobs, respectively, being advertised in the region over two years.
Other degree-necessary jobs with a healthy number of positions advertised include management occupations (2,012), business operations specialists (1,851), teachers (1,313) and financial specialists (1,216). It’s also worth mentioning the healthcare worker occupation, which can require varying levels of education, almost tops the list of most posted jobs, with 11,299 unique postings over the same two-year-period.
In other words, because of what’s available may not line up with the skill sets they’ve gained in college, many young people have been pressured financially to look to bigger cities to pursue careers. It’s a common complaint that the Lima News heard in the responses pulled from its Future of Lima regional survey, with just over 10% of the 300 respondents naming the need for “high quality jobs” to help turn Lima around.
The difficulty is there’s no easy answer to diversifying industry to reverse the trend, except for maybe one, Andreas said.
“For places like Lima, the main thing that I’ve seen is that there is an effect of having colleges and universities in the local area to help create more of those opportunities for those graduates that they produce,” Andreas said. “When you look at areas that have major institution of higher education, they have less of that brain drain. That’s one thing I’ve seen some papers on. But they were probably written by professors.”
So instead of diversifying, current economic development efforts are working to try to inform young people about the region’s current industries when it comes time for them to plan for their future.
The next generation’s workforce
Greater Lima Region, Inc. estimates the region will need to fill 22,000 additional jobs in five years. And many have already set their sights on the next generation to do it by connecting businesses to schools and educators.
In Auglaize and Mercer counties, the Auglaize Mercer Business Education Alliance is trying to bring local business people into the schools and working to equip students with some of the basic skill sets required for career advancement.
“A lot of times at the eighth grade level, they’re already saying: ‘What college do you want to go to?’ That’s not the conversation. It’s about what do you want to do,” Mercer Educational Services Center Director of Curriculum Karen Rose said. “It’s about intentionality and shaping your future.”
Similarly in Allen County, OhioMeansJobs started offering job coaches to local schools to talk to students to help them better understand the types of jobs available in the region. There are also site visits to area employers.
Rose said the idea is to get students ready to follow a career path armed with a better idea of where they’re headed once they leave school. Through some of their programs, they teach some basics of networking, interviewing and communication standards.
Among those lessons are helping students become more savvy with knowing what’s available at the places they want to be and to recognize that the career they enter may not be the same they retire from. With automation on the rise, the Brookings Institute estimates that one quarter of all current jobs in the United States could be done by either robot or artificial intelligence. Low-wage jobs are especially threatened.
“You have to maintain your relevance,” Rose said. “When Microsoft came out, we had all these (people say): ‘Well, I’m not a computer person.’ Well, you can’t be, or you’re going to be a non-employed person.”
Whether such efforts will work or not is still up in the air.
The retirement poblem
When talking about the future of the region’s workforce and the jobs available, there’s one last piece of the puzzle that’s worth mentioning — the retirement wave.
Because of the region’s industries and the national trends hollowing out the number of younger and middle-aged workers, there’s one group over-represented in the region’s current workforce. When Baby Boomers retire (and many are ready to), there may be some issues.
Back in 2016, the Allen Economic Development Group published a report on workforce that makes note of the trend. It estimated the number of regional labor force in an eight-county region would decrease at a faster rate than the expected population loss by 0.5% over the decade spanning 2015 to 2025.
“This trend will especially impact the construction, manufacturing and transportation industries,” according to the report. “Firms in these sectors need to anticipate and prepare in advance in order to ensure that suitable replacement workers are available.”
So what about Joe?
As Swora was spending hours driving back and forth to his jobs away from Lima, he had a lot of time to think. He formed his own ideas about some of the workforce issues.
“In the 10 to 12 years, I always kept a passing eye on the job market in Lima,” Swora said. “The frustration I kept feeling is that the Allen County and Lima market is so heavily geared toward the manufacturing industry, healthcare or retail, there is very little else.
“I was just trying to find any sort of position for my skillset — office management, communications and marketing — they were very few and far between.”
Eventually he found what he wanted in Columbus, and he convinced his wife to start looking to find something else in the metropolitan area. As an engineer, she found a new job too — one that paid much more and had more career options.
“She finally started to realize she was never going to grow professionally where she was specifically in Lima, and there wasn’t going to be any other opportunities in general to explore that either,” Swora said “I told her that with her experience and being under 40 that they would throw money at her, and they did.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.