Youngstown Vindicator: Population and workforce dips grow more critical

Greater Ohio Policy Center has conducted a study that shows Ohio is getting older, losing workers and, in fact, losing population in general. Over the past two decades, the state’s population has grown by 3% — but that increase is due largely to growth in Columbus. If you remove the state capital from the numbers, the rest of the state has lost population by approximately 1%.

Further, the state’s population grew significantly slower than many other parts of the nation, resulting in Ohio actually losing a Congressional district this year. (The 13th Congressional District currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan will be split and merged into the 6th Congressional district to the south and the 14th Congressional district to the north beginning in January.)

The Greater Ohio Policy Center’s report states: “Much of Ohio functions like a legacy state rather than a rapidly growing place. As a result, state policy makers need to think differently about the needs and challenges of the Columbus area versus other places in Ohio.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of state we hear described during economic development announcements — at least one of which will be within easy commuting distance of Columbus.

Researchers lament the condition of the population in places such as Akron, Toledo or Dayton — “legacy cities.”

“Today Ohio’s legacy cities are no longer experiencing precipitous population declines but may still be seeing only marginal population change, be it slow declines, slight growth or remaining steady,” according to the authors of the report. “These dynamics go hand-in-hand with an aging population and decreased economic vitality.”

Last week, chartered financial analyst David Valentiner, director of interest rate management for First National Bank, spoke about the challenges that declining population brings, particularly when it comes to preserving solid workforces.

Valentiner spoke at the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s annual economic forecast breakfast.

The workforce issues could become a crisis. Of course, that isn’t unique to Ohio.

There are 153 million workers now, he said. In comparison, there were 152.5 million in February 2019.

He admits the economy has had some dips, “but really the economy has been growing for two years; the workforce has not,” Valentiner said. “That’s the situation we are in right now.”

One cause is the baby boomer generation — workers who traditionally have stayed in the workforce longer than other generations — is retiring at an unprecedented rate.

In 2019, 1.5 million baby boomers retired. The last two years, they retired at double that rate.

Valentiner said America has lost more than 3 million of the most experienced workers that normally would not have exited the workforce.

Family dynamics and birth rates also play a role in the shrinking population and, therefore, the workforce. People are waiting longer now to marry and have children. Birth rates across the developed world are declining below the 2.1 children per family needed to keep a population stable, excluding immigration, Valentiner said.

The insight and statistics shared by Valentiner present a challenge that Ohio must work to overcome in order to maintain and attract new business.

Getting back to the Greater Ohio Policy Center study, let’s forget “legacy cities” for a moment. If that kind of sluggishness or decline is being felt in Ohio’s more urban areas, the outlook for rural Ohio — particularly Appalachian counties — is even worse.

“This (Appalachian) region, which has never been densely populated, struggles with many of the same challenges that Ohio’s legacy cities face on top of the effects of an resource extraction economy,” researchers wrote. “Though Appalachia is not a specific focus of this report, several of the solutions offered for Ohio’s legacy cities are also likely to help rural Appalachian cities and towns.”

Maybe. But it will take more than an emulation of what might work in the rest of the state to make real change here. Surely the folks we elect to represent us in Columbus understand that. And, if they do, they must urgently be thinking of ways to correct this negative trend.