In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, an employer-directed skills development program created by the Workforce Connect partnership was just getting underway.
The pilot program, “ACCESS to Manufacturing Careers,” which involved formerly incarcerated adults, was designed to provide hands-on manufacturing training in things like quality systems, shop floor math and soft-skill training in work readiness, but had not been designed for the public health and safety requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The program was just getting launched as Ohio was shut down,” said Peter Accorti, president of Talan Products Inc., a Cleveland metal stamping and manufacturing company that participated in the employer-led training program. The students were set to go on plant tours, do in-person interviews and hands-on training, 80% of which had to be moved online.
“All the students received Chromebooks and (internet) hot spots. The training center at MAGNET was made into a virtual training center, and when things had to be taught in person, spaces were retrofitted,” Accorti said.
The Workforce Connect Manufacturing Sector Partnership represents one of three industries — health care and IT are the others — selected to be the focus of a collaboration of employers, nonprofits, funders and educational institutions working to address workforce deficiencies in Cuyahoga County.
The manufacturing partnership, initiated in 2018 and backed by the Cleveland Foundation, Deaconess Foundation, Fund for Our Economic Future, George Gund Foundation, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Team NEO and United Way of Greater Cleveland, was the first industry sector to roll out.
In a time when Northeast Ohio is grappling with record unemployment, and significant swaths of the economy remain shuttered or are operating at reduced levels, Workforce Connect, as an employer-led work skills development initiative, has had to make a considerable pivot in the way it conducts programs.
“After the shutdown, without the ability to meet for training, we saw a fairly significant impact on people not being able to virtually participate,” said Adam Snyder, MAGNET managing partner for the Workforce Connect Manufacturing Sector Partnership. “There were those who could not wait for training and took whatever immediate jobs they could.”
He said another group of possible participants faced a steep digital literacy gap and were not able to join the program even when computers and Wi-Fi were provided.
A January 2020 MAGNET survey found about 8,000 open manufacturing jobs in Northeast Ohio, which employers said inhibits their business expansion, Snyder said. Of those open manufacturing jobs, about 1,500 to 2,000 are in Cuyahoga County, where nearly 3,000 people are released from prison on average each year.
Because most of the manufacturing sector was considered essential and was not shut down due to COVID-19, traditional perceptions of the industry as unpredictable because of layoffs and furloughs have faded, Snyder said, making it more attractive to younger workers.
More than 80 candidates applied for the four-week Access program created by Talan, Elsons International and Alloy Engineering, Towards Employment and the Precision Metalforming Association and supported by 13 manufacturing companies that committed to interviewing the eventual nine graduates for jobs.
Access’ success, Accorti said, is because the Workforce Connect collaboration is so broad.
“When as a group we are all sitting around a table, so to speak, we make up 20% of the manufacturers in the region,” he said. “With that size of a group, you understand what is going on and you can affect change.”
Change is what Shana Marbury, senior vice president of education and workforce at the Greater Cleveland Partnership, wants to see. As manufacturing sector partner, she points out that even before COVID-19, there were thousands of underemployed and unemployed people of color in the region.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black workers in Ohio between mid-March and June made up 13.8% of unemployment claims, while representing only 11.9% of the state’s labor force.
With the devastating economic downtown disproportionately hurting communities of color, coupled with the focus on racial injustice brought on by police brutality protests around the country, these issues are “running through all elements of the Workforce Connect groups,” Marbury said.
One of the overarching goals of Workforce Connect is to develop career programs for some of the “high-potential populations,” including immigrant, veteran and re-entry individuals — all who have been historically underrepresented in Northeast Ohio’s manufacturing workforce.
“We have a very specific focus on reaching out to African Americans, women, the re-entry population and other minority candidates because, while the unemployment numbers are going down for the state population as a whole, there are still challenges in our minority communities,” Marbury said.
Looking at the sector partnerships “with an eye to equity and inclusion” is critical when moving forward with the health care and IT sectors, she added.
Both the health care and IT sector partnerships have made significant announcements regarding planning, funding and leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Even with the severe disruption on the health care industry that has been brought on by the pandemic, Cuyahoga Community College, the lead organization for the Workforce Connect Healthcare Sector Partnership, this month announced the appointment of Susan Krejci, operations manager at Better Health Partnership, as executive director.
And RITE, the tech talent arm of GCP, last month was selected to use $2.5 million in funding and lead the newest Workforce Connect Information Technology Sector Partnership.
The three sectors were selected as important aspects of the region’s economy, but Marbury said she expects the groups — which overlap as tech is integrated in manufacturing, and health and safety are key concerns for both manufacturing and IT — will share resources while “weaving in the inclusion and equity” into all the programs.
“One of the pieces of work that we are most excited about is the synergy that we believe can be created between all three of these industry sectors,” Marbury said. “With these sector partnerships working together, it can deepen outcomes.”
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