EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series that will explore the reassessment of work standards as well as turnover rates and retention challenges faced by local businesses. It will delve into what nearby counties, states and countries have tried to address the apparent workforce shortage. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here.
MOUNT VERNON — While the pandemic redefined work for many, changes in the available workforce also reflected another problem — the aging out of workers.
Major industries in Knox County have seen spikes in retirements and employee retention challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matthew Kurtz, director of Knox County’s Job and Family Services, attributes at least some of the current issue to a workforce gap from baby boomers retiring.
The Baby Boom Generation, those born from 1946 to 1964, makes up around 41 million workers in the United States, or over a third of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, the oldest among the generation were staying in the labor force in 2019 at the highest annual rate for people their age in more than half a century.
Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation, has found turnover rates to be an issue in one of Knox County’s highest concentrated sectors — manufacturing.
“Our manufacturing workforce tends to be older and we’re not replacing them as fast as we were,” Gottke said. “There’s been retirements and attrition and there aren’t many young people coming in to replace them.”
Manufacturing is also a major industry in nearby Ashland County, and Ashland manufacturing companies have also faced turnover issues.
Phil Cunningham, vice president of sales and marketing at Mansfield Plumbing, said retirement spiked at the company last year.
The Mansfield Plumbing facility in Ashland could not replace workers at the rate they were leaving, Cunningham said, not only because of a lack of job interest, but also because it takes approximately six months to train new hires.
Mansfield Plumbing has also had issues with employee retention, Cunningham said.
“A lot of people come in, they work for two weeks and then leave,” he said. “We’ve never seen that kind of turnover.”
The company, which makes toilets, has facilities in Perrysville and Henderson, Texas. All facilities saw retirements and consequent hiring challenges, Cunningham said.
Healthcare is another major industry in both Knox and Ashland County that has seen turnover problems, said ShaNa Benner, director of resident services at Lutheran Village Assisted Living in Ashland. For instance, nurse’s assistants have been hard to come by.
“This predates the pandemic, having a hard time getting nursing assistants,” Benner said.
The assisted-living facility has also had difficulty hiring LPN charge nurses, both during and before the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
In the past couple of years, Benner has noticed problems with people not sticking with positions long-term and, initially, not showing up for interviews or returning calls after hiring conversations.
Transformation Network, which offers temp-to-hire, direct-hire staffing and retention programs in Ashland, has also had issues with people not showing up for interviews or for their first day of employment, director of operations Kelly Smith said.
Overall, Transformation Network’s placements dropped approximately 50% during the pandemic, she said. While placements are now rising, they have not reached pre-pandemic numbers.
Housing might also be complicating the employer-employee disconnect in Knox County, Gottke said.
An ADF study released in early 2021 revealed demand has outpaced the supply of homes in Knox County.
“There’s just no housing in Knox County, so when businesses come to town and they tour across the street and they say ‘I’d really like to come here but where are my workers going to live?’ That’s a real question,” Gottke said.
“If we can help to solve some of the housing problems, we can import some workers. They kind of mesh together.”
Public meetings have shown a disagreement among community members about rental properties in the city.
In a Mount Vernon Municipal Planning Commission meeting on June 10, a proposal for creating apartments was rejected because it would require zoning changes, specifically making a single-family district into a multiple-family district.
A trend of people getting their driver's licenses later in life may also be impacting who is likely to fill part-time, low-wage roles that have openings.
“There appears to be a trend of students getting their driver's licenses later and later in life,” said Sean McCutcheon, a Knox County career navigator who matches graduating high school seniors with manufacturing and healthcare opportunities.
Many students he has worked with cited not having a driver’s license as a key obstacle to employment, he said.
In a June 23 meeting, the Knox County Workforce Development alliance also discussed financial barriers to taking driver’s education courses. Alliance members include stakeholders in both the private and public sector across the county.
There is also no driver’s license testing site in Knox County. The closest driver examination stations are in Licking and Richland counties. Others members mentioned concerns about increased insurance costs for parents once their children obtain a license.
Programs in Northeast Ohio have tried to connect youth to businesses that are seeking help, specifically through partnering with local schools. But McCutcheon said simply connecting youth with employers was not enough, citing driving barriers, a lack of soft skills and follow-up, among other challenges.
Coming Thursday: What are other areas — nearby counties, states and countries — doing to address a lack of response to available jobs?