West Central Ohio is a remarkable combination of agriculture and manufacturing. Four of the region’s counties – Auglaize, Darke, Mercer and Shelby – consistently rank as the highest agriculture producing counties in Ohio. They are truly the “breadbasket” of the state. And yet, they are also home to more than 22,000 manufacturing jobs. Their stats for manufacturing jobs per capita are remarkably high – among the highest in Ohio and the U.S.
What is the reason for their success? It is all about location, development assets and workforce. The region is centered between Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati. It is within a day’s drive of half of the U.S. and Canadian population and 60 percent of manufacturing companies. It has access to Interstates 75, 70 and 80 and is served by several main line rail companies. These four Ohio counties also have high-quality, affordable utilities and well-prepared industrial sites – although their most important asset is the region’s workers.
The roots of West Central Ohio are deep in agriculture. Farm families are self-motivated and hard working. They are great problem solvers and they show up ready to work. “Our people are the key to local company success,” explains Jared Ebbing, President of the regional economic development coalition. “Our workforce attendance and retention rates are a testament to their commitment to our companies.”
As the region’s companies continue to prosper and grow, the economic development organizations within these four Ohio counties have focused on innovative new approaches to help companies meet their talent needs. It truly is a story of innovation and partnership.
With regional employers faced with the challenge of attracting talent as far back as 2012, the decision was made to create HometownOpportunity.com as a free service where companies in the region could post their profiles and position openings, and jobseekers could post résumés, make direct connections, have their résumés seen, and be contacted directly for interviews. The site has evolved over time and videos about businesses have been added, along with connections to schools – especially junior high schools – where students can access information about companies and their benefit programs for selections before graduation.
“It was important for us to be able to make those connections between our companies, our school districts, and our potential jobseekers,” states Ebbing. “We have a very low unemployment rate in Western Ohio, so we have to be very proactive in helping to connect the dots between our companies’ talent needs and regional job seekers.”
As Executive Director of the Wapakoneta Area Economic Development Council (WAEDC) since 2005, Greg Myers is proud of the many accomplishments of the WAEDC organization, and how it continues to serve the needs of existing and new businesses.
With a lengthy history of being a great place to start and grow a business, this Ohio city – which was founded by the Shawnee Indian Nation in the 1780s – is on the map for many reasons. The birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, Wapakoneta is home to approximately 10,000 residents, but is within a three-hour range of almost seven million, making it ideal for employers requiring a skilled talent pool. It is estimated that about 21 million people drive through Wapakoneta every year, further making it a prime location for a wide range of business and manufacturing types.
With a background as Director of a County Chamber of Commerce, local Mayor and member of the Board of Education, Myers understands the key elements of economic development. He also spent 18 years as a regional sales rep for industrial and construction supplies. Achieving a great deal in his present role as WAEDC Executive Director – including the development of one of the state’s first certified manufacturing sites, the 760-acre West Central Ohio Industrial Center – Myers readily acknowledges the combined strength of Wapakoneta/Auglaize County and other regional partners, namely Mercer, Darke, and Shelby Counties.
While many smaller counties across the United States have methods in place to attract and retain existing businesses, Myers and his other county economic development partners knew much more could be done. About six years ago, this lead to the creation of Hometown Opportunity, and the website https://hometownopportunity.com. More than a unique employment platform, Hometown Opportunity was developed to create awareness of locally-available jobs and careers, connect job seekers to businesses, and guide students in high school and college as well as adults to education or training. According to the website, “The goal of Hometown Opportunity is to ensure that everyone in our community is aware of the jobs and careers available. Our local companies are in need of our local talent, who all too often do not realize the great opportunity right here in our own backyard.”
While there are plenty of employment-based websites out there, Hometown Opportunity more closely resembles a highly personalized Indeed.com or Monster.com, where job searchers can post résumés, research companies, and look for available positions. Unlike these and similar websites, however, hometownopportunity.com focuses on its region and its local companies, making it easy to explore and see currently available employment opportunities in Auglaize, Mercer, Darke, and Shelby Counties.
With the four counties located along the western border of Ohio with Indiana – about midway between Toledo and Cincinnati, in what is referred to as West Central Ohio, on the I-75 corridor – Hometown Opportunity started as a collaboration between neighboring Auglaize and Mercer counties. Although a cooperative regional relationship for economic development existed among the counties for about a decade previously, business retention became an increasing issue, with Darke and Shelby counties soon joining Auglaize and Mercer. “It became apparent to us that those other two counties to the south are pretty much joined at the hip to us as well, so it made sense for all four of us to collaborate on this project,” states Myers.
Working in unison
A collaborative effort, Hometown Opportunity was first suggested by Mercer County Community and Economic Development Director, Jared Ebbing. Speaking with local businesses at the time, Ebbing soon discovered many businesses wanted to expand, but faced a lack of skilled workers. “What made me want to do the Hometown Opportunity website was, I talked to companies, and they said they needed people, but more importantly they said, ‘Jared, our young people don’t want to come back here.’ The company’s perception was because no young person was applying for the job that no young person must want to come back, or stay in a rural region, and that was their assumption.”
Speaking with high school students, Ebbing asked them about the notion that they did not want to remain in smaller Ohio communities; to his surprise, almost every student raised their hand, and said the opposite was true. They wanted to stay in the area, but didn’t believe there was enough manufacturing, or jobs to be had, to keep them there. It was then Ebbing realized companies weren’t getting their message through to students, and this needed to change.
“Kids had no idea what was out there,” says Ebbing, adding that a young person is not going to use old-fashioned tools like newspaper ads to find jobs. “So the fundamental reason why we set up hometownopportunity.com is to connect the dots between the companies that did not know how to communicate with this generation about the jobs, opportunities, and everything they have to offer kids who wanted to stay or come back.”
In response, a technology website was created, with Hometown Opportunity ‘connecting the dots’ within the community to make it easier for a company, and a student or any young person, to interact. Instead of print ads, jobs pop up on phones or social media feeds, and companies can promote themselves via video. This has resulted in a unique strategy to bring together business and job seekers in ways which truly speak to them and their generation.
While some may refer to young people leaving their communities for educational or work opportunities and not returning as brain drain, Ebbing is not a fan of the term. “In my opinion, brain drain is just a made up word,” he says. “Brain drain only occurs when you’re not communicating with each other. If you communicate with each other, between the young people and their parents, the schools, and the company, then you are truly making the connection.”
A valuable service
About two years after the inception of the Hometown Opportunity website, another component was needed, which resulted in the creation of the Auglaize Mercer Business Education Alliance (AMBE). Driven more from the private sector to make connections between students and their career plans, the AMBE’s purpose is to bridge area schools and businesses by connecting them to available opportunities with companies in Mercer and Auglaize counties. Under the auspices of full-time Executive Director Shelly Busse, the AMBE continues to foster relationships between local schools and businesses, working alongside Auglaize and Mercer Educational Service Center curriculum directors.
Although the Hometown Opportunity website was doing a great job for those seeking a job and making connections with available jobs, the decision was made to be even more proactive. One of Busse’s roles is to spend the summer months with companies, learn about current needs and objectives that will help them with their talent recruitment, and then spend the school year making connections with all school districts within both counties, working with ministry and guidance staff. With this approach, connections are made between the jobs the Director has learned are currently available and the skill sets that are needed. Starting with freshmen, students are made aware of what the opportunities are and what training is necessary.
Through ABME, a strong statement is also being made to both parents and students, namely that they needn’t necessarily be saddled with a huge debt load for postsecondary education, since they can go to work straight out of high school and receive reimbursement for their training post-high school. “That’s a message that often gets overlooked,” states Myers. “People assume automatically they have to go to college and get a college loan, but really there is a very strong possibility if you go directly into manufacturing, the company will help you with a post-high school education… to help you develop a career with them.”
Retaining existing businesses in the four counties remains a key driver of Hometown Opportunity, and Myers, Ebbing, and their partners in Darke and Shelby Counties believe that the initiative also has a place in helping businesses grow and thrive. “We have an obligation to help them meet their talent needs,” says Myers. “Another part of our job is attracting and bringing new capital investment and job creation, but our primary job is helping the companies that have been investing and employing people here for a long time.”