LIMA — High school seniors are faced with a unique challenge during this coronavirus pandemic.
How do you set up a life’s trajectory when you don’t know where to aim? What may be true today may not be tomorrow, and with so much up in the air, it’s hard to say exactly what may happen with any certainty.
Job coach Samantha Butterfield said the graduating seniors she works with through Ohio Means Jobs-Allen County aren’t too worried about it.
“I haven’t run into too many concerns, especially with Apollo and Perry students,” Butterfield said. “A lot of them know what they’re going for. We’ve got a lot of welders and HVAC students; they know exactly what companies to talk to. They’re still hiring, for the most part.”
While societal foundations shift and crumble under threat of COVID-19, seniors can stand on solid ground in Allen County thanks to a decade’s worth of workforce development efforts.
If enough seniors follow the same path, the pandemic could actually help Lima get ahead.
The college question
In the past two months, Ohio’s 14 public universities have already bled roughly $300 million, according to the Inter-University Council of Ohio. The Ohio State University, for example, has asked its colleges to consider up to a 20% reduction as a potentiality. Similarly, the University of Cincinnati has already announced hiring and salary freezes.
For the upcoming fall semester, colleges face even tougher decisions. If the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily life, public universities will have to decide at what capacity to stay open. Online learning has worked so far, but students may consider other options down the line, especially if they don’t see their hefty tuition delivering the value they expect.
“Enrollment is probably going to go down,” said Lucia Dunn, an economics professor at The Ohio State University. “They say some colleges plan on being reopened, but it’s going to be vastly different.”
For years, workforce officials have stressed that high-schoolers need not head to a four-year institution to find a fulfilling career. As the fallout from the coronavirus shakes up expectations and university ledgers, that sentiment has been strengthened.
Today, options outside of college run the gamut for seniors due in part to workforce development efforts created over the years. Those students without college plans can meet with a roster of job coaches available at each Allen County school district to track openings or connect with the right training program.
Technical and vocational skill programs have gained some momentum, especially among young men. Some organizations — such as Vanamatic in Delphos, GROB in Bluffton and even the City of Lima’s water treatment workers — have institutionalized extensive training programs to grab the workers they need.
The state, too, has sunk funds into local workforce training. Just prior to the pandemic, OhioMeansJobs established a $1 million 8,000 square-foot training facility/conference center just southeast of Lima to be used by statewide companies. State funds have also been funneled through The JobsOhio Workforce Grant to help companies carry the costs of employee training.
For high-schoolers, technical and vocational schools like Vantage in Van Wert and Apollo Career Center in Shawnee Township emphasize the need for career-ready credentials alongside graduation, and the coronavirus hasn’t stymied that need.
Apollo High School Principal Tasha Sheipline said her staff has been busy re-finagling coursework for their students in the wake of the outbreak. Out of the 20 different programs offered through the school, some are better adapted for online work than others, and Sheipline said her students have really had to roll with the punches to get their work done. In a way, those students are already putting the school’s philosophy on the need to be flexible into practice.
“One of our focuses I repeat over and over and over is we really prepare students to be ‘next ready.’ Whatever is next in your journey, you’re ready to tackle that,” Sheipline said. “Coronavirus may be not the way we intended, but it’s a way to test those skills.”
Whether seniors take those lesson to heart and apply it to their careers remains to be seen. Data is still coming in.
“It could be a hopeful thing for the community colleges. A lot depends on what kinds of jobs are available if they want to stay close to home and work there,” Dunn said. “So it could be a silver lining in this very dark cloud.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
While job loss has proliferated throughout the national economy, many companies are waiting to see what the future may hold before making their human resource decisions.
A March survey of employers conducted by Handshake, a recruiting app for college seniors, reported that 54% of employers were waiting before making any hiring decisions, but those that actually have decided to hire fewer workers make up only 9% of respondents.
Locally, Joe Patton, executive director of Ohio Means Jobs-Allen County and Allen County Department of Job and Family Services, said he’s seen job postings stagnate since the coronavirus pandemic began to impact Ohio, but there is work still available. The local agency lists a number of companies — from Bob Evans to Pratt Industries — that are currently looking for workers.
Not surprising, the majority of those listed jobs are located in the manufacturing and healthcare industries, as those two industries are the largest in the region. Many subsets of those industries have also been able to stay open during Ohio’s stay-at-home order due to their essential nature.
Manufacturing Pathway Director Doug Durliat said manufacturers in the West Central Ohio Manufacturing Consortium that he communicates with have been challenged by social distancing and coronavirus, but many have been able to make the necessary changes to keep operating. Of course, that could change if consumer demand stays low and people continue to reserve their dollars for a rocky future.
“They’re trying to keep the ship going as best as they can without being too draconian,” Durliat said. “If things should turn south, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Through Rhode State College’s Manufacturing Pathways Certification Program, Durliat said he’s been trying to help prep workers with the right skills. In the future, he expects to arrange a class to help residents gain food processing credentials. For the time being though, Durliat said the local manufacturers he talks to have been mostly sitting in a holding pattern as buying patterns shift.
Those that have seen the most economic pain have been first tier automakers, Durliat said. Companies such as Ford, which just posted a $2 billion loss in 2020’s first quarter this last week, have been hit hard by supply chain disruptions as many U.S. automakers still rely on parts from around the world. Car buying also tends to go down during periods of economic contraction.
To get by, Durliat said such companies have had to be creative to save dollars. Locally, some have been furloughing their employees, sometimes at weeks at a time to curb expenses during what many expect will be a very low revenue year.
Comparative to other industries, however, manufacturing is sitting in relatively safe waters.
Dunn, the economics professor at OSU, said the real losers of this downturn will be the retail and restaurant giants that overextended themselves or never found solid footing in the wake of online shopping.
“A lot of businesses are probably gone forever,” Dunn said. “The restaurant industry is probably not going to snap back. They say a lot of those companies are going to go bankrupt.”
Similarly, some of the old retail giants sitting in the Lima Mall could find themselves finished. Macy’s and J.C. Penney had been bleeding business for years — J.C. Penney sits with a debt load of $3.7 billion — and the coronavirus epidemic could erode the little financial standing they had. In March alone, national retail sales dropped 8.7%, according to U.S. Census data.
But again, optimists can consider that there may be potential positive repercussions for the region years down the line. Retail workers, cashiers, waiters and fast food workers have all numbered among the top 10 most prevalent jobs in Allen County for at least the last two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but wages in those jobs have stayed notoriously low. The BLS estimates median wages for each position locally is close to $10 an hour.
If some of those positions are eliminated and manufacturers stay open, those workers may consider higher-paying jobs on the factory floor if they want to stay in the area, thereby adding more dollars and more movement to the local economy.
The grain of salt
With all that said, the economic pain that people are suffering from is very real. More than 1 million Ohioans filed for unemployment benefits in the last six weeks alone, and that number is expected to grow. Despite a $2.2 trillion massive government stimulus bill, some business owners won’t be able to weather the storm due to razor-thin profit margins or lack of savings.
Spending is down. Unemployment is up. Job seekers are entering the worst labor market in a decade. The IMF expects a 5.9% GDP contraction for the United States.
The expected economic rebound could be just as messy. Government leaders may be unable to effectively and efficiently deal with the coronavirus and the related economic fallout. The general populace could reverse the curve-flattening resulting from social distancing. If an outbreak worsens, the health care industry could be overwhelmed, and the associated downturn could cripple any gains already made.
Dunn, however, is optimistic. Compared to earlier recessions, this one didn’t result from structural problems with the market, she said.
“This collapse has come about because some sort of thing dropped out of heaven on us, not because of overextended financial firms that had sold all these derivatives. It’s not that kind of thing now.” Dunn said. “In one scenario, if we get a cure or vaccine and everyone goes back to work, it could snap back pretty quick.”
In other scenarios, who knows?
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.