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Lake County agencies working to change perception of manufacturing

Andrew Cass | The News-Herald

There’s a conversation that U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown had with a White House staffer several years ago that sticks out in his mind.

That staffer said to Brown, D-Ohio, “You know, everyone in America wants there to be more manufacturing, but nobody wants their kid to do it.”

The statement plus observations Brown made throughout Ohio inspired him to think, “ ‘How do you get young people interested in a very different manufacturing from what their parents or grandparents may think manufacturing might look like today?”

“Manufacturing is one of our most important industries, too often companies can’t find workers with the right skills while students frankly don’t realize the opportunities available to them,” Brown said.

The Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority is noticing the challenges Brown mentioned.

In a 2016 state of the industrial market presentation, Port Authority Executive Director Mark Rantala said in a decade Lake County could be between 4,000 and 8,000 workers short of filling the jobs that exist today based upon the number of baby boomers retiring and millennials entering the workforce.

“What our biggest challenge is, is not finding a job for every worker … but rather finding a worker for every job,” Rantala said in that presentation. “Our manufacturing community is challenged to fill the positions that they have.”

When students or their parents hear the term “manufacturing” they often think of “dirty dusty old jobs,” Brown said.

“They think of the outdated, offensive term Rust Belt,” he said. “To me, the term Rust Belt demeans our work and diminishes people in our state.”

Today’s factories in Ohio aren’t rusty, they’re innovative, Brown added.

“They’re high-tech, they’ll provide good, high-paying, high-skilled jobs,” he said.

For the past several years, Brown’s office has helped organize camps to help Ohio students learn about manufacturing.

Auburn Career Center in Concord Township hosts one of those camps held throughout the state. Brown’s office, Auburn, the Alliance for Working Together (AWT) Foundation and OhioMeansJobs Geauga County partner to put on the camps.

This year, two one-week camps were offered. The first, from June 5-9, was open to both boys and girls entering fifth or sixth grade. The campers’ project was creating speakers, and they learned about electronics and how speakers work, among other things.

The second camp, from June 12-16, is for girls only. This camp, themed “It’s Our Time,” involves students building compasses, electromagnets and motors as well as LCD alarm clocks. They’re also visiting local manufacturing plants, such as Fredon, Suburban Manufacturing and Libra Industries.

AWT is a nonprofit group that advocates for manufacturing jobs among students. AWT started in 2002 and the consortium now has more than 100 member manufacturing companies.

Mentor-based Fredon Corp. owner and AWT founder Roger Sustar said he “absolutely” agrees with the White House staffer’s quote.

“The only way to change the perception is to get mom,” he said.

They try to show parents, “You can be successful, you can have a house in Concord Township,” with a career in manufacturing.

AWT’s battling robots program, called RoboBots, is another opportunity to showcase manufacturing facilities, both for students and parents.

High school and middle school teams spend six months building the robots with the help of area manufacturers. Sustar said that during that process, they like to have parents come in and see the facilities.

“This way, parents will feel good about what their youngster will do,” he said.

Teachers are another group to which AWT tries to showcase manufacturing. A “New Teacher Welcome Day” is held before the start of a new school year. The goal is to acclimate new teachers to Lake County’s manufacturing economy as well as educational resources in the county. The event is organized along with the port authority and the Lake County Educational Service Center, the Lake County Chambers of Commerce and Lake Metroparks.

The event was launched in 2015. Port Authority Coastal Manager Peter Zahirsky told The News-Herald then that the program helps “manufacturing and education communities together in a way that will enhance the outstanding academic opportunities and career readiness programs that already exist in Lake County.”

It’s a tough row to hoe, Sustar said, but, “We’re making a little dent.”