Youngstown, Ohio–After decades of closing factories and job losses, the employment market in Youngstown is looking up. A glut of cheap natural gas has already led to the construction of a cracking tower nearby and the area Chamber of Commerce is hopeful that additional factories will open in the coming years. Cracker plants refine natural gas into plastic, and the opening of the new plant, in addition to cheap energy costs, is making Youngstown an attractive site for manufacturers. Oddly enough, manufacturers’ biggest difficulty is finding workers. To try to solve the problem, the Chamber has launched an innovative program, called JobsNOW, to educate workers and employers.

“We have 13,000 unfilled jobs in this area,” says Guy Coviello, president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, who explains that many of these positions provide middle-class wages and do not necessarily require a college degree.

Despite these open jobs, the area still has an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent. As the employment market tightens (Youngstown’s unemployment rate has fallen two points since March), it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to find workers who meet their needs.

As a result, the area Chamber of Commerce has begun several programs specifically targeted at introducing high school students, graduates of Youngstown State University, and local residents to employers and industries in the area. The programs approach the issues from several angles, trying to educate potential workers about new career options, and also to help businesses better shoulder the costs of pre-employment drug testing and other HR work.

For a little over a year, the Chamber has partnered with WKBN, a local television station, to air a weekly segment profiling jobs or job training programs in and around the Mahoning River valley. These JobsNOW segments feature interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at employers and training programs for a variety of different careers. Thus far, topics have ranged from explanations of “How to be a nurse in Youngstown,” to letting viewers know that the Youngstown children’s museum is hiring an operations director.

“There is a disconnect between the quality of some of our jobs and the public’s perception about what those jobs is,” Coviello says, who adds that the program is compounded by education that is not tailored to employer needs.

“There is a gap between education and in demand jobs where there isn’t aligning curriculum,” he says.

He adds that employers have had a lot of interest in the program and that he is optimistic about its reach. The goal of the brief JobsNOW segments is to show people that they do not need to leave Youngstown to find a job. In addition, the Chamber has created programs at the local high schools and Youngstown State University to help align education with in-demand jobs.

Education is only one facet of the Chamber’s JobsNOW efforts. In a second phase set to launch in a few months, the Chamber will become a “clearinghouse for workers,” taking on the costs of pre-employment background checks, skills assessments, and drug tests to lower hiring costs for employers. The Chamber hopes to assemble a database of workers who have passed skills, background, and drugs tests which they can then offer to employers looking to hire.

“The way it stands now, an employer has to interview all of the candidates, offer the job to who they want, and then send you to do your background check and your drug test,” he says. “What happens is you spent all this time and money on the human resources side, including the cost of the drug test, only to have that candidate never show up to take the test or fail the test.”

All of this adds to an employer’s cost of hiring. In the Youngstown area, a surprisingly high percentage of employees (no official statistic exists, but Coviello estimates it is over 40 percent), fail to appear for a drug test after being offered a job. A smaller percentage of applicants appear for a test which they later fail. As a result, the employer loses the time and money they had invested in the interview process with that candidate.

This phase of the JobsNOW program is the result of donations from several area groups, including the local hospital, and is the result of several years of planning.

“Nationwide there is a problem with finding skilled workers who can pass drug tests,” says Coviello. “We have one of the most unique, if not one of the best workforce development programs in the nation.”

Drug screening is becoming increasingly common for area employers, who are concerned about the safety risks and insurance costs of employees who show up to work under the influence of narcotics. In addition to weed, Ohio has been struggling with opioid abuse for years, and the Youngstown area has some of the worst overdose and death rates in the state.

“Ohio has become one of the top states in the country for heroin, prescription drugs and now fentanyl – which is a synthetic heroin – overdoses and deaths, and the Mahoning Valley is, unfortunately, about 20 percent ahead of the rest of the state in terms of those same grim statistics,” said Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, who introduced a bill last month to help fund addiction treatment.

Drug abuse is only one of the challenges Youngstown faces as it tries to turn its economy around. After years of characterization as the heart of the Rust Belt, the city has a tough reputation to shed. However, efforts by area groups are pushing to change that public image, showing workers and employers that good jobs and strong wages are available.

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