Tables sit in a room with a stage at the front.
The crowd listens to Joe Reep, the president of the North Central Workforce Alliance, speak at the start of the organization's annual summit on Oct. 18, 2023.

ASHLAND — If you take Columbus out of Ohio’s data on population, age and workers, it indicates greater losses throughout the state than one might realize, according to Alison Goebel, the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. 

That’s why the Greater Ohio Policy Center released a report last year, detailing the numbers. The Greater Ohio Policy Center works to build a revitalized Ohio.  

Its report, “Ohio Plus Columbus: A Tale of Two States,” outlined how Ohio may be missing opportunities for growth and stability in different parts of the state. 

Goebel presented data and insights from that report at the North Central Workforce Alliance of Ohio’s annual summit on Wednesday.

The North Central Workforce Alliance (NCWA) consists of area employers. It aims to address issues with attracting, training and retaining skilled workers.

This year’s Workforce Summit

The summit is NCWA’s annual event. This year, keynote speakers addressed the question of where workers have gone. They painted a picture of where the state’s workforce is at now. They also shared ideas that may help the state with workforce challenges moving forward.

Goebel’s report provided an overview of the issue. She has been with the Greater Ohio Policy Center since 2010.

Goebel shared that, with the exception of central Ohio, the state experienced a population loss between 2000 and 2020. Households are getting smaller, the population is aging and not many people are migrating into Ohio, Goebel said. 

“The point is, the loss has been actually much greater than what the statewide numbers might suggest,” Goebel said. 

Lydia Mihalik, the director of the Ohio Department of Development, and Rick Carfagna, the senior vice president of government affairs for Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce, served as Goebel’s fellow keynote speakers. 

After Goebel’s overview, Mihalik and Carfagna shared the ways the state has worked to address workforce issues. They also shared ideas for continuing to address them moving forward. 

Ashland Mayor Matt Miller, State Rep. Melanie Miller and leaders from the Ashland County Community Foundation and Junior Achievement of North Central Ohio also shared comments during the two-hour event.

The keynotes

Goebel, Mihalik and Carfagna all highlighted that rural areas, like Ashland, will likely see the largest impacts of the state’s shrinking population. They said that trends forecast that Ashland’s population — and the state’s — will decline between 2020-2050. 

In fact, according to Mihalik, with current trends, only 14 out of the state’s 88 counties stand to grow in population. It requires taking a look at solutions. 

Mihalik, who directs the state’s Department of Development, highlighted efforts the state government has made to invest in Ohio through its biennial budget. 

She touched on the All Ohio Future Fund. She said that fund invested $750 million into communities across the state to help attract new businesses. 

Mihalik also said the new budget put $125 million to encourage the creation of “innovation hubs.” 

That investment was based on innovation districts JobsOhio has developed in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, Mihalik said. The hubs would help create new jobs and spur economic growth, Mihalik told the NCWA summit attendees.

These investments, she said, are helping to make Ohio an attractive destination for businesses.

“Companies are investing in Ohio because we’ve been investing in ourselves,” Mihalik said.

Carfagna’s presentation largely focused on a “Blueprint for Ohio’s Economic Future” report. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce put that report together in October 2022. 

The 92-page report focuses on six main topics:

  • education and workforce
  • sense of place
  • taxes and costs
  • innovation and collaboration
  • business friendliness
  • infrastructure

It also makes policy suggestions on those topics. Carfagna highlighted some of the policy proposals that the state legislature has enacted already, and some that he hopes to see move forward in the future. 

He said the hope is that the report is a living document. 

“We want this to be an incubator for legislative ideas, a discussion point for economic policy,” Carfagna said.

Despite the negative trends in population projected for the state, Mihalik expressed hope. 

“We’re investing in the things that we think are important, and that you want to invest in,” Mihalik said. “When you have a gap, we want to be there to help you fill it. 

“Things are lining up right now. It’s a great time, as the governor says, to be in Ohio, and one of the many reasons we’re succeeding as a state is because we’re investing in the things that are important to you.”

The takeaways

For Joe Reep, the president of the North Central Workforce Alliance, the goal of the summit is for people to leave inspired. 

Reep said he felt like the event went well, and speakers provided a lot of good information. Issues like declining population and a shrinking workforce don’t get solved overnight, he said. Still, Reep thinks discussing the issues is an important step to finding solutions.

“It’s just as much for people to learn about what’s going on as it is for them to get involved and fight the good fight,” Reep said. 

The executive director of the North Central Workforce Alliance, Erv Howard, agreed with Reep that the event was informative. Howard used to work on workforce development for the state. 

Howard said attacking issues of how to attract, train and retain workers require organizations to work together. For him, the turnout at the event was heartening. 

On a personal level, Howard said, he took away the importance of career centers, especially in rural areas. 

“For a long time when I was involved, we were kind of left out,” Howard said. 

Despite the challenges that may lie ahead, Howard said he found the summit encouraging. He hoped that all the attendees had something beneficial they came away with.

This independent, local reporting provided by our Report for America Corps members is brought to you in part by the generous support of the Ashland County Community Foundation.

Ashland Source's Report for America corps member. She covers education and workforce development, among other things, for Ashland Source. Thomas comes to Ashland Source from Montana, where she graduated...