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Acute shortage of skilled workers in Northeast Ohio is looming (Opinion)

Mark Rantala

A perfect storm is facing Northeast Ohio employers. The baby boomers are retiring, leaving huge gaps in the skilled trades and managerial ranks. A void that is already becoming a challenge for the advanced manufacturing community -- one of the region's driver industries -- will only get more critical in the next 10 years.

In 10 years, 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials. But the ranks of those entering the workforce in Northeast Ohio are insufficient to fill the gaps the baby-boom retirements are creating.

In Lake County alone, we estimate that by 2025, we will be 4,000 to 8,000 workers short to fill the positions that currently exist, much less be able to provide sufficient workers to grow the economy.

I expect that this problem exists across Northeast Ohio. We need to continue to grow the knowledge economy and attract the millennials that are filling the downtown apartments, but they represent less than 0.5 percent of the region's population — a number far below what is needed.

We also need to bring back into the workforce those who have been discouraged and draw back those who have left Northeast Ohio.

In his book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," Joel Kotkin describes how America will assimilate 85 million people in the next 35 years as the population reaches 400 million. The impact of this growth will reshape the landscape of America's workforce and the country as a whole. Not everyone will live in urban cores or the Sun Belt. Together with technology, this growth will affect the suburbs and small towns of the Midwest, as well.

Just to stay even, Northeast Ohio needs to attract 1 million new residents in the next 35 years and grow to 5.2 million people.

The solution to our workforce challenge is threefold.

First, we must start a campaign to bring native Northeastern Ohioans home and return our young people from the college campuses of Columbus, Ann Arbor and elsewhere by aggressively marketing the opportunities of the region. The current growth of downtown Cleveland gives us a great platform to build upon.

We must support and grow the entrepreneurial climate to make the region a better place for startups and gazelles. Michigan, as part of its Pure Michigan campaign, invests $2 million annually in an effort to bring scattered Michiganders home. Northeast Ohio needs a similar long-term effort.

Second, we need to create an entry strategy to bring people into the workforce and create opportunities to advance them up the employment ladder. The strategy could focus on those in the workforce today to advance them from the entry rung of waiters, waitresses, cooks and retail clerks to jobs in the skilled trades and manufacturing.

Their experience in the workforce, coupled with training, can be the foundation of career advancement and fill the openings in the manufacturing sector being created by the looming retirements of baby boomers. At the same time, it can open a rung on the employment ladder for those without work experience.

Third, we need to create computer coding academies in the Cleveland public schools and promote coding education in all schools throughout the region.

Code.org has identified the need for 1 million people to write code in the United States in seven years. Fewer than 12 percent of high schools in the United States currently offer coding classes. A base of coding education will become a driver of entrepreneurial growth and become a valuable attraction tool for the region.

A Cleveland coding academy would provide a pathway to careers that often pay $75,000 annually for students currently trapped in circumstances that offer little in the way of a future. Multiply that across the region and you can quickly see the value and impact that a coding strategy would have on the technology base in the region.

As Team NEO reshapes itself, it needs to take the lead on a real growth strategy of population attraction and workforce inclusion and development to create real growth for the region. It is not only a jobs strategy but a workforce plan, as well.

Our future as a region depends on real growth.

Mark Rantala is executive director of the Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority.