By almost every measure, Ohio’s economy has been on a roll, entering the 2020s with greater energy and optimism than at any time in decades. Having thrown off its long-held Rust Belt image, our state has embraced new technologies with a global reach and created an array of jobs for those already in the workforce as well as young Ohioans preparing for careers.
Even with Ohio’s successes, however, our ability to attract job-creating investments in new and expanded facilities has often been hampered by a mismatch of Ohioans’ skills and employer needs. The reason is that, for generations, Ohioans could achieve middle-class prosperity with a high school education or less. It is a belief that, in some quarters, has lingered. Advancements in technology and automation, however, mean that the jobs that once defined middle-class prosperity, many of them routine, manual labor, now require more advanced training. This might be even more true as the economy recovers from COVID-19.
Like every state, Ohio’s future has been clouded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented stock market losses, business closures and unemployment will not be quick to undo, and the resulting losses to public sector revenues will force state and local government entities, as well as public education institutions, to make hard choices as they adjust.
Facing this combination of new and existing challenges, Ohio needs a renewed, urgent effort to close the gaps between the skills our workers have and the skills employers need. Specifically, that means helping Ohioans attain advanced educational levels represented by high-value credentials and postsecondary degrees — what researchers call educational attainment. Ohio’s current rate of educational attainment is too low, meaning that many of Ohio’s current and potential workers need more training in order to compete for the good-paying jobs that can better provide for themselves and their families, as well as fill the positions employers need to hire. Researchers have shown that Ohio needs nearly 1 million more adults with high-value credentials and postsecondary degrees to set up Ohioans — and Ohio — for success.
As we take up efforts to close the skills gap, certain issues stand out that require particular attention, including the need to ensure equitable access to the technologies that are so central to learning today. The gaps in attainment tied to income and race that have existed for far too long have been further highlighted by the pandemic. Just as lower-income workers — many of whom are people of color — have been less able to work from home and more likely to become unemployed, students of color or those facing poverty have had less access to technology required for online instruction. Going forward, a question to ask of all recovery policies will be: What do they do to shrink this equity gap?
The nature of workers’ skills and their knowledge of technology feed these disparities, which is especially challenging given the likelihood that online learning will play a larger role going forward. Knowledge of, and access to, technology is correlated with higher educational attainment. Too many workers with lower skills who lack technical skills also lack the means to gain access to technology to improve their skills and so a self-perpetuating cycle develops.
For many Ohio families, the pandemic has made tough questions about finances, child care, housing and education even tougher to answer. If those hampered by these challenges find themselves further sidelined in a time of economic difficulty, they will fall further behind — and so will Ohio. The need for more financial aid, more wraparound supports and more versatile learning access is essential.
A public-private coalition of more than 40 employers, educators and the leaders of state agencies, statewide associations, unions, philanthropies and community organizations has been working for three years to study and outline the strategies Ohio needs to continue moving forward. This group, called the Complete to Compete Ohio Coalition, has been researching best practices, creating communication tools and hosting events to highlight the importance of educational attainment and its impact on the economy of our state.
The result of this work is the newly released plan, Bridging Ohio’s Workforce Gap. With it, the coalition is ready to expand and deepen its existing work while also pursuing new partnerships and programs outlined in the plan designed to move the needle on educational attainment.
Ohio’s ability to recover from an economic downturn hinges on the educational attainment levels of our citizens as they leave high school and progress in their careers. While our challenges are great, our goals are achievable. A decade ago, many saw Ohio as beyond repair, but together we righted the ship and our state is now a global model for innovation in workforce development, economic strategy and private sector growth.
We can climb the hills before us and reclaim the promise of stability and broad-based prosperity for all Ohioans. Together we can do it.
Lisa Gray is president of Ohio Excels. She resides in Dublin.