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Education Series: What Ohio Workers Need for the Future

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 at 12:51 PM

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For generations, Northeast Ohio's economy was friendly to workers with nothing more than high school diplomas. But recent buyouts at GM, Delphi, and Ford have underscored the fact that those jobs in manufacturing are disappearing. In the latest installment of our special coverage of education, ideastream's Mark Urycki examines what workers need for the future and how they'll get it.

See Also: All Education Series reports

Business leaders around the country say the same thing: it’s the knowledge economy, stupid. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said last week, education is the key.

Frank Jackson: When I graduated from Max Hayes Vocational High School in 1966, I left there and others left there and we could get a job with a high school diploma. Many children dropped out and they wound up working in a factory. At that time manufacturing was strong. There were a lot of factory jobs. But it’s different today. Now you need to know something.

Ohio politicians still dangle tax breaks in front of new businesses but Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, just back from another foreign trade mission, says that’s missing the mark of what most companies are looking for.

Don Plusquellic: If you look at national surveys (and) you look at statewide surveys you will find that taxes is way down the list. They want an educated, skilled workforce.

In fact, Expansion Management Magazine, which targets American business leaders looking to move, has asked them about priorities. The number one attraction is highway accessibility, followed by affordable workers, then availability of skilled labor. Tax incentives rank fourth. The magazine’s senior researcher Michael Keating says today college degrees matter.

Michael Keating: They are the people who develop the new products that pave the way for increased profits for businesses. That’s one reason why our readers are so interested in educational attainment, the number of degree holders in an area because that’s one of the signs of innovations in a community.

Expansion Management Magazine rates cities with a Knowledge Worker Quotient. University towns score the highest. Akron used to be a blue-collar town with a job for every high school graduate in one of its tire plants. But when the factories moved south, the city turned to polymer research. Donations from tire companies helped the University of Akron establish a polymer PhD program 50 years ago. It’s former dean, Dr. Frank Kelly, says their most important product has been educated graduates.

Frank Kelly: We do have a number of spinoff companies; we do have an impact in regard to the generation and growth of some modern technology companies. I think we have to to be competitive. But in many ways we have caused companies to survive by providing technical services and technical knowledge and survival in some cases as important - if not more so - than seeing how many new ones we can create.

And then there’s simply the benefits of research. The head of the National Science Foundation, Arden Bement, worries because in the past six years, private sector spending on campuses has been dropping each year.

Arden Bement: The leverage that R&D investment has in an economy is enormous. If you look at Alan Greenspan and the other Fed Chairmen, they attribute a lot of the economic growth to new technology - perhaps as much as 50%. Economic growth due to R&D investment.

Are some countries doing it better than the U.S.?

Arden Bement: No.

Are they catching up?

Arden Bement: Yes. (laughter)

While manufacturing jobs continue to shrink, they aren’t disappearing. Still, some college education is desirable if not required these days. Senator George Voinovich says the head of Toyota in North America told him that Ohio’s secret weapon is its two year colleges and technical schools

George Voinovich: I know everybody keeps talking about four years - and yes, we need more engineers. But the fact is in a manufacturing environment high school graduates that have two-year degrees or have had some training to upgrade their skills in terms of the theoretical are really needed in this state.

Southern states, once known for their lack of education, are catching up and surpassing states like Ohio on this front. That’s where Mercedes Benz and BMW have located their U.S. plans. Again, Michael Keating of Expansion Management Magazine.

Michael Keating: We asked what states offer the best worker training programs. Alabama, where Mercedes is setting up this new facility, came in number one. Speaking of the south, you have Alabama, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina in the top five positions.

State support for any higher education has been shrinking in Ohio. Since 1990, the costs of college in the buckeye state has risen to be among the highest in the country. Gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland notes that the state’s share of tuition - 63% in the 1980s - is now below 50%.

Ted Strickland: So we have, in effect, privatized our public colleges and universities and they are now accurately described as private institutions with partial public support. We need to reverse that.

China now has as many college graduates as the U.S. It will take a huge commitment here to compete in the global economy. But America - Ohio included - can turn things around. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic contends it requires some risk taking - especially by politicians but it can happen. Plusquellic says even relatively weak economies, like that of Ireland, have achieved amazing results.

Don Plusquellic: And virtually every high-tech industry or company in the world is locating a facility in Ireland. It’s not that difficult to show that it actually makes sense to invest in early childhood education and college education and it pays off. And the proof is it has worked in Ireland.

Plusquellic pointed out that some of the Irish politicians who increased the investment in education 20 years ago were not reelected. But he says they later were proven to be correct. In Ohio neither Ted Strickland nor Ken Blackwell have offered any plans yet on increased spending for higher education and training. The question is whether Ohio voters would support politicians who do. Mark Urycki, 90.3. 

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