Union County businesses, educators and economic development officials have joined forces to solve a shortage of manufacturing workers in Ohio.
The coalition is working on a two-part mobile laboratory project to recruit a younger workforce into manufacturing jobs. The coalition targets Champaign, Franklin, Hardin, Logan, Madison, Morrow and Union counties.
"Ohio's two top industries are manufacturing and agriculture. We got away from our roots, and we need to look at manufacturing career opportunities for our students," said Eric Phillips, executive director of the Union County Economic Development Partnership and CEO of the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
The first part of the $1.4 million project is a mobile lab that will showcase modern manufacturing at intermediate schools as well as high schools and technical schools. It would contain robotics, computer-aided design, computer numerical control machines and other industry tools.
Coalition officials envision the second part as a Computer-Integrated Mobile Lab Program, which would establish permanent labs at select facilities to train new workers.
The $1.4 million price tag would pay for equipment, software, the mobile and permanent labs, and upgrades to existing labs at technical centers around the state.
However, the coalition has raised only about one-third of the necessary funding. Phillips said the group is looking for additional partners and leaders for the project.
According to data on Union County's website, Union and Franklin counties have a combined 1,688 manufacturing companies, which together created 43,875 jobs in 2013.
More than 50 percent of the existing manufacturing workforce likely will retire in the next 10 years, creating a shortage of workers.
"It's important to keep in mind the average age of a manufacturer employee is 55. We understand that that is really an issue and those numbers are going to be extreme," Phillips said.
Looking down the pipeline, companies see many students are not prepared for a technical career. Only about 2.3 percent of students in grades K-12 are enrolled at Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City and 4.8 percent of students are enrolled at Ohio Hi-Point Career Center in Bellefontaine.
"As far as the industry goes, we are all in the same situation with pending retirements and workforce," said Scot McLemore, technical development manager for Honda North America Inc. in Marysville.
"As we continue to age, we're going to have a lot of openings in these skill areas. As we reach out to educators who are the pipeline for our workforce, we realize we don't have enough people."
The coalition aims to change that with an initiative to increase students' interest and education in manufacturing.
The new Marysville Early College High School -- a partnership of the Marysville school district, Ohio Hi-Point Joint Vocational School District, Columbus State Community College, Honda of America Manufacturing, the Union County Chamber of Commerce and EDWorks -- offers classes for students to start earning credits toward an associate degree or technical certificate.
Students who pursue these options could graduate high school with the appropriate skills and training for a demanding workforce.
McLemore said Honda works with local schools on curriculum so students graduate with the knowledge and experience that make them career ready.
"As we work with them to create this curriculum and align the curriculum to our needs here at Honda and other manufacturing companies, they have a nice opportunity to get an associate degree that is technical-based and have access to career technical learning with hands-on component learning," McLemore said.
According to the Marysville School Course Planning handbook, students can begin these classes by the end of their sophomore year and can attend Ohio Hi-Point Career Center for a full day during their junior and senior years.
Kathy McKinniss, principal of the new Marysville Early College High School, said students who are interested in a technical track can take block courses in core high school classes. That way, freshmen and sophomores complete many state-mandated graduation requirements early.
"Our plan is to frontload the high school coursework so that they will have most of their credits completed by the end of their sophomore year," McKinniss said. "That way, by their junior year, they can take dual enrollment classes."
Marysville Early College High School and Tolles Career & Technical Center were recipients of state Straight A grants to help fund education in manufacturing.
Kim Wilson, superintendent of Tolles, said these grants and collaboration with Union County leaders are critical to their efforts.
"Both of these initiatives have received tremendous support from business and the industry, the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio legislators and the governor's office," Wilson said in an email. "With roughly 54 percent of the current manufacturing-skilled labor force in Ohio reaching retirement age in 10 to 15 years, this training is critical."
"This is something that can be useful in the entire state of Ohio because we have a workforce shortage. This is an opportunity to show students an important career choice," Phillips said.