Rea S. Hederman Jr.: Coming job opportunities show importance for Ohio to prepare

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 12, 2022

As Ohio celebrates Labor Day and the hardworking men and women who get the job done, state policymakers must continue preparing today’s labor force for tomorrow’s economic opportunities.

After hitting historic unemployment of 16.4 percent at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio has rebounded with unemployment now lower than four percent.

Unfortunately, there are still fewer Ohioans in the labor force today than there were before the pandemic as the state continues to battle global competition, declining population, and a disruptive technological shift into a 21st century economy.

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But as Ohio transitions to a more digital economy, the future looks bright.

Computer chip maker Intel recently announced that it will build a significant new semiconductor manufacturing plant in central Ohio. Intel has promised to invest billions of dollars to create a “Silicon Heartland.” That investment will mean new jobs in the high-tech sector and other supporting industries.

The region’s affordability and multi-college presence attracted Intel, and Ohio policymakers should take steps to ensure that the state can meet Intel’s demand for skilled labor.

More than half of Ohio manufacturers already lament the skilled-worker shortage that has hindered growth, disrupted supply chains, and exacerbated order backlogs.

Policymakers can help – and they must help if Ohio is going to revive manufacturing, shift into the new economy, and take full advantage of Intel’s promise and opportunity.

New employers are looking for skilled workers trained and able to perform the new tasks at-hand. In the short-term,

Ohio should eliminate outmoded occupational licensing rules that make it harder for skilled employees already licensed in other states to work here. With The Buckeye Institute’s encouragement, restrictive licensing rules for military families and nurses have been relaxed, but more remains to be done to make it easier for other professional out-of-state license holders to move to Ohio and pursue their careers, especially in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM professions.

Ohio has an urgent need for computer science teachers to teach the STEM classes necessary to equip students with the skills sought by Intel and other advanced manufacturing companies. Unfortunately, Ohio ranks in the bottom half of states offering computer science classes in high school. Ohio needs to increase high school STEM training to meet the demands of modern employers.

Teaching computer science, however, is financially uncompetitive compared to private sector employment alternatives, and current collective bargaining agreements prevent school districts from paying computer science teachers more. These realities contribute to a state-wide computer science teacher shortage.

Fortunately, when local school boards determine that a subject area suffers from a teacher shortage, school districts may attract more teachers by increasing teacher compensation for that subject area. State policymakers should recognize a computer science teacher shortage across the state and empower all public school districts to increase the pay of computer science teachers as needed.

Emphasizing computer science classes and skills-training at every academic level will help Ohio in the long-run. Education policymakers should require all public high schools, for example, to offer at least one foundational computer science course and require students to take at least one such course before graduating. And as the Buckeye Institute has recommended, Ohio should better utilize its community colleges to prepare workers for in-demand jobs by making it easier for low-income students to access opportunity grants and transfer to traditional four-year colleges for more training.

The Ohio labor market has struggled and overcome. And those are victories to celebrate. But more challenges with even greater opportunities await. The 21st century economy is knocking at the door, looking for a 21st century labor force with a new knowledge and an enhanced skill set. When opportunity knocks Ohio must be prepared to answer.

Rea S. Hederman Jr. is executive director of the Economic Research Center and vice president of policy at The Buckeye Institute in Columbus.