Lt. Gov. Jon Husted

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted speakers to approximately 150 people — employers, local leaders and students — about the state's workforce challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ASHLAND -- Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said Ohioans should be focused on building a career and college-ready workforce to fill the state’s workforce gaps.

“What is job training?” Husted asked an Ashland audience Wednesday. “Well, it comes right from the very beginning of life.”

Husted updated Ashland employers on Ohio’s workforce efforts and economy during the workforce summit Wednesday hosted by North Central Workforce Alliance of Ohio. He mentioned the disconnect between increasing job openings and an apparent lack of people willing to fill them — not a new phenomena but one Ashland, and other communities across the country, are increasingly facing since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a problem of prosperity to some extent,” Husted said. “When you have a lot of jobs and job opportunities and not enough people, it creates a whole set of challenges — and opportunities for those who want to take advantage of it.”

With an abundance of job opportunities, job seekers have more options to choose from, Husted said, which has been an observation voiced by economists and employers alike throughout recent months.

Some thought with the removal of pandemic-era financial assistance, job seekers would flock back. So far that has not been the case, Husted said. 

“We have fewer people on unemployment today than we had pre-pandemic,” Husted said.

Yet, there remains fewer people in the workforce now compared with pre-pandemic numbers. Attendees questioned what the state government would do if the federal government issues a vaccine mandate for companies with more than 100 employees.

Husted said while he's a proponent of COVID-19 vaccination, he doesn't think government should require it, in part because of how it may worsen staffing challenges. Ohio will file a lawsuit if the federal government takes action, Husted said. 

Husted thinks one way to address the employer-employee disconnect is to improve job training in a broad sense, targeting youth. 

“Statistically speaking, in Ohio about 40% of the high school graduates that we have do not graduate career or college ready,” Hustead said, urging employers and leaders at the event to think of ways to decrease that statistic.

“Think about how much better off we would be if instead of four out of every 10 high school students leaving without being career or college ready, if we said it was three. Because that’s one more person that’s going to work. That’s one more person that’s positively contributing to good outcomes in the community.”  

While Husted focused on the intersection of education and economic development, Wenco Wendy’s Franchises president and CEO Zane Gross spoke about the challenges his company is seeing day-to day — notably staffing and retention issues. 

Gross, a 1978 graduate of Ashland High School, owns and operates 63 Wendy’s restaurants across northern Ohio, northern Indiana and southwest Michigan. Gross said the restaurants he oversees were well-staffed before the pandemic, and when job vacancies arose, they could fill them with relative ease. 

“Our current situation is that we have been consistently running an excess of 1,000 employees down for the last year and a half,” Gross said, nearly 50% below pre-pandemic staffing of 2,200 to 2,500 restaurant-level employees across locations. 

Gross said job quits throughout the pandemic have not only been among restaurant employees. Managers with upwards of a decade of experience quit because of stress and exhaustion. While each restaurant typically has 12 people on staff per shift, he said there have been situations where there have been as few as three. 

“Many weeks we lose more people than we can hire,” Gross said. 

Other restaurants in Ashland aside from fast food have also faced persistent retention issues. When employees leave after weeks or days, restaurants are consistently having to train a new workforce, increasing labor costs.

Also Wednesday, a panel of three local employers addressed the ways they are adapting to workforce challenges. The employers — Peter Kandis of Aultman Orrville Hospital, Ben Uselton of BCU electric and Andy Fox of Kokosing — all said they have and continue to struggle with hiring and retention, even though they work in varying industries. 

For example, Kandis said the turnover rate at Aultman Orrville Hospital has jumped to 19% this year compared with 10% last year, and lower than that in prior years.

In response, each employer has tried offering competitive wages, changing hours of operation, honing in on career growth internally and focusing on company culture (for example, BCU electric has a gym on-site for employee use).

“It’s not the same answer all the time,” Kandis said.

As previously reported by Ashland Source, the workforce reassessed work. More people voluntarily quit their jobs than ever before, many searching for higher wages, hours flexibility and the right fit for childcare needs, among other priorities that have come to light amid the pandemic. Changes in the available workforce also reflected another challenge — workers aging out

While there remains no one-size-fits-all solution, the employers who spoke Wednesday said the pandemic has forced them to adapt in ways they otherwise would not have. 

Kandis, of Aultman Orrville Hospital, said the increased use of virtual communication has allowed him to be more respectful of people’s time. Vice President of Comfort Control Joe Reep, who moderated the employer panel, said his company has looked to hire people they may have otherwise not thought to seek out, such as veterans.

Each of the aforementioned employers have also increased partnerships with local schools and career centers. Four Ashland students spoke about their involvement with career center programming Wednesday, including two sixth graders who participated in “Gloves and Goggles,” a program where students visit the career center for half a day and attend high school career tech programs.

“I didn’t really know about the career center before I went, but now I know that it’s an option and I know that there’s a lot of cool things you can do when you go there,” said Arienne Vaughn, one of the sixth graders.

The career center offers certifications as well as opportunities for scholarships. 

“Just because someone has chosen to participate in one of the technical programs out of the career center does not mean that that path cannot lead on to a college degree, a masters a bachelors or whatever they’d like to pursue,” Mayor Matt Miller said.

Miller and employers present Wednesday also discussed programs through which people can work while attaining a degree, including tuition assistance, apprenticeship programs, co-op programs, among others. That in turn relates back to Husted's focus on educating the future workforce. 

"Either is a good choice," Husted said regarding people who enter the workforce or attend college following high school. "But it's not even a choice you have to make. You can do both."

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.