Since its population of just over sixty thousand people is spread over four hundred square miles in Northern Ohio, Sandusky County faces a challenge when attempting to create viable and sustainable opportunities for its workforce. Kay Reiter, executive director of the Sandusky County Economic Development Corporation, explains how the region makes the most of its assets when planning for the years ahead.
While Sandusky may be a small county, it is already attracting large-scale corporations, and this is no doubt due to its highly skilled workforce and strategic location. “Our largest manufacturer is Whirlpool Corporation, and they actually have the largest washing machine production facility in the world located in our county. The largest washing machine facility of any producer is located here in Sandusky. Then we also have Heinz. This is where they make their ketchup.”
Kay is eager to draw attention to the importance of manufacturing as both a skill and career for people living in the county “We have a mixture of manufacturing companies. We actually are one of the counties in Ohio where, if you look at our population versus manufacturing (jobs), we are one of the larger counties.” The amount of manufacturing in the county ensures that the focus for economic development cannot move too far from this industry.
In addition to its global companies, Sandusky County is home to a great deal of plastic manufacturing which, says Kay, serves various industries. “We have a lot of plastics. It is a huge industry for our county which means that we impact the automotive industry quite heavily by the plastics that are made here. We have manufacturers that make spoilers and other plastic components that range from Mercedes-Benz to your small efficiency cars. Then we also have a range of manufacturers that produce plastics that are connected to the housing industry.”
A county such as Sandusky that is heavily reliant on manufacturing industries will forever be at the mercy of outside market conditions. While not instantaneous, the economic crash created huge difficulties for business in the county. “When the economy took the plunge like it did, we felt the effects slightly delayed. We didn’t feel it right away, but you have to remember that we have a lot of automotive suppliers. Plus, when you are talking about advanced manufacturing, which is appliances, they are usually impacted when the housing industry takes a swing downwards. Everybody, when they build a house, wants new appliances.”
The location of Sandusky County is of critical importance to the success it has experienced in attracting business. According to Kay, Sandusky is located, “one day’s drive from 87% of manufacturing within the United States and Canada. We are pretty centrally located.”
Also, Sandusky is linked by a high-quality road network for transportation, and infrastructure such as this is vital when seeking new investments in the county. “We are located right beside – it actually runs through our county – an interstate highway, and so we have a lot of traffic when it comes to logistics that utilize that highway. We also have – running east to west – Route 20. So we have a really good highway structure.’
Attracting new business is not without its challenges, however. While the county is performing exceptionally well on a national level regarding economic development, Sandusky has a population of just over sixty thousand people. As a result of its modest size, maintaining a high-quality workforce with potential to grow can be difficult.
“I think our biggest challenge right now is being able to find the workforce to fill potential jobs in the future.” Kay is realistic when it comes to the scale of business that Sandusky is seeking to attract. “We are looking to attract more small and medium-size manufacturers. For us, to say that we are going to go for another manufacturer comparable to Whirlpool, that is not realistic. We don’t have the workforce to fill over three thousand jobs. We would need this whole region of Ohio in order to do that.”
Notwithstanding this, Kay is aware that the available pool of workers is broad and willing to travel. ”We know from surveys that the workforce in Sandusky County does not think anything to drive forty-five minutes one way to work. So we can bring in small or medium industries and it would not be unusual for them to be driving in either from the eastern or western parts of Ohio. They would drive to a site location for a job.”
Ways to maximize the potential workforce must also be addressed. While unemployment currently sits at a satisfactory level, Kay feels that these figures do not tell the full story. “We have just gotten our unemployment right, and we are at 4.5 and the state is 4.3, the nation is 4.7. When you look at that kind of number, that number technically is telling you that you are pretty much at flat employment. A lot of the individuals that are not currently working are doing so for specific reasons; they do not have the skill set to be hired, or they don’t have the desire to work in general. Those are challenges that we as an organization cannot get over but we have to work together to try to resolve them. That’s our biggest challenge but we are not by ourselves on that. It is across the state.”
Given these challenges, those in charge of developing the local economy have had to draw up specific strategies to ensure that the level of skilled workers does not dip in the future. Figures point to around 37% of the workforce reaching retirement age in the next five years. With this in mind, Sandusky is putting together preventative measures to ensure the longevity of its workforce. It has started to communicate to career counselors in the local schools to explain the technical requirements of a career in modern manufacturing.
“We actually did a bus tour two years in a row for guidance counselors, and we brought them into manufacturing facilities. We based it on seven skill sets that we felt were important in manufacturing. Last October, we did a ninth grade career showcase. We had 825 students that attended a showcase on manufacturing. We are getting the younger ages to start thinking about a career in manufacturing.”
With more than one eye on the future, it has been acknowledged that information tours are only one facet in ensuring the long-term success of business in the county. To complement these tours, Sandusky County has been communicating with local educational institutions and a new program is now being offered to students to prepare them for future careers.
“We have a community college, and they are instituting a new program in the college which is specifically focused on manufacturing. It will include the components that are necessary when it comes to doing the regular standard things you need when you are working as a manufacturer. We also are lucky to have three vocational school systems that help to train the youth within our county. That primarily is workforce training for high school students.”
What is clear from these initiatives is that, while future economic development and success of Sandusky County may not be guaranteed, the county has the experience and the forward thinking to capitalize on opportunities that come its way. With its educational programs and promotional work, the future manufacturing workforce will be primed and prepared to grab new business with both hands.