Poll: Ohio industry sub-par

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 6, 2004

Foreign competition and government support remain the biggest hurdle facing Ohio's largest industrial employers while workforce problems are manageable, according to a recent poll.

Ohio University Southern and the city of Ironton conducted a survey in August 2003 to identify the economic health of Ohio's largest industrial employers by asking a series of questions focusing on employment issues, government support, economic conditions and expansion considerations.

"We talk about economic development all the time around here. The goal was to see what industry is looking for and what it views as the problems," said Jim Crawford, director of OUS's Center for Innovation and Leadership.

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"Every community in Ohio says, 'We need economic development.' So, the logical first step was to ask, 'What do you care about?, What are you interested in? and What are your biggest problems?'"

The 20-question survey was completed by 58 Ohio companies that employ an average of 773 employees each and pay wages that range from $12 to more than $20 per hour.

According to the survey results, issues of highest concern to the industry leaders included foreign competition, government support for training and development and the ability of the labor pool to provide candidates with leadership skills.

The respondents reported general success in the ability to hire and train a quality workforce in Ohio. Many of the companies indicated they look forward to growth, despite the national recession.

Analysis of the survey indicated that industry leaders believe the state needs to rethink the financial support it provides. Most respondents indicated that state support for employment skills is not successful and that the focus should be shifted toward funding for facility growth, Crawford said.

Overall, respondents were generally optimistic. While the survey pointed to serious concerns about the state environment for employers that need to be addressed, many of the companies expressed an interest in growing within Ohio under the right circumstances, Crawford wrote in his summary.

"At the end of the day, the most encouraging thing was that a number of businesses are willing to expand facilities. Capital improvement monies may be more crucial than workforce development funding," Crawford said. "So is it encouraging? Yes. I think the state needs to revisit what its tools are to help."

Many of the questions focused on hiring a quality workforce. Only 14 percent of the respondents stated that hiring skilled employees was the biggest obstacle they faced. Only 18.5 percent indicated that the most serious impediment to growth was locating talented people to contribute to the organization.

However, most respondents agreed that hiring qualified management personnel can be more difficult in the current Ohio market. Eighty-four percent of the respondents agreed to some degree that "it is extremely difficult to hire people with strong leadership skills."

Although the workforce as a whole was not viewed as a major problem, government provided resources to find and train employees was largely reported as unsuccessful, drawing more negative responses than any other questions.

To the question, "WIA and our One Stop Employment Center are key contributors to our labor pool," only 9 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed. Seventy-six percent of the respondents disagreed, with 39 percent of those strongly disagreeing.

Many of the questions focused on the perception of economic opportunities and obstacles in the Ohio business environment. Conducted in August 2003 in the heart of a national recession, 63 percent of the respondents stated that business was "significantly affected" by the economic downturn.

Several questions focused on plans for expansion. Sixty-two percent of the respondents indicated that they were not considering an expansion. Thirty-seven and one half percent indicated that they were either neutral to the prospect (15.5 percent) or favorable to expansion (21 percent).

Seventy-three percent of the respondents indicated that they would need economic incentives to consider expansion. The remainder indicated that incentives would not be necessary for them to consider expansion.

Based on all the questions regarding expansion, responses indicate that only 37.5 percent of businesses surveyed are actively considering expansion. However,

that number increases to 73 percent if economic incentives are available.

Fifty-two percent of the respondents disagreed that the state provides adequate support to business and industry. Twenty-six percent were neutral.

In terms of competition, 56 percent either agreed that foreign competition is the greatest hindrance to growth, while none stated that U.S. competition hindered growth in significant way.

This study could pave the way for more studies and help identify business that would be interested in locating in Lawrence County, Crawford said.

Future studies could include a current polling on the affect of the economy on respondent companies, specific concerns about government efforts to assist in the hiring and training of the workforce, what it would take for a company to expand, the implications of foreign competition on the growth and development of Ohio industry and more.

For a complete copy of the report or for more information, Crawford can be contacted at (740) 533-4606 or by e-mail at crawfj2@ohio.edu.