MANSFIELD — Major shifts in Richland County’s employment base are illustrated in lists of its “Top Ten Employers” over the past several decades.
Forty years ago, Westinghouse was the area’s No. 1 employer in 1972, with 3,470 workers. The rest of the top employer’s list that year was composed of other factories which churned out steel, tires, appliances, automotive parts, or plumbing products.
But by the 1990s, after a string of older factories closed or moved, the list of our largest employers looked different.
Not only manufacturers, but government offices, nonprofits and the service sector made the lists. United Telephone, Mansfield General Hospital, the Air National Guard, Richland County government offices, and school districts were among the top employers.
In recent years, a majority of companies on the Top Ten list have come from sectors other than manufacturing.
MedCentral was No. 1 in 2010, at 2,500 employees, after mergers with other nearby health-care facilities. Richland County government was second at 938 workers, followed by StarTek, at 800.
“Manufacturing has shrunk as the largest employers in the county, while public sector employment in state and local government and public education has grown to be among the larger employers,” Richland County Commissioner Ed Olson said.
The expansion in government jobs related to federal and state initiatives, such as child support enforcement, or Job and Family Services’ expanded functions, he said.
The Top Ten lists changed in another way — with the size of the most dominant companies shrinking.
In 1972, the Top Ten employers averaged 1,435 workers apiece. By 2010, the average number of employees was nearly half that number, or 738. With that kind of change, one wonders what the Top Ten employer lists will look like in 2020, 2030 or 2040.
Yet development officials say they’re attempting to look ahead to prepare for a strong employment base. The Richland Community Development Group has set up committees to work on economic development initiatives across several job sectors. RCDG has begun contacting 200 existing employers across Richland County.
“Obviously, we want to find out what their concerns, their efforts, their challenges are,” economic development director Herman Stine said. “We live in a dynamic society. Everything is changing. If you’re doing what you did 40 years ago, you’re really the rarity.”
RCDG community development director Bridget McDaniel said residents should not think manufacturing is dead.
“All indications are that manufacturing is going to increase, throughout the country and in Ohio,” McDaniel said.
Factories have become so efficient and productive, those assets offset savings from cheaper labor, she said. As cheap energy becomes available from Marcellus and Utica shale, the manufacturing sector will benefit, too.
Ohio’s ready availability of water also could draw manufacturers back to this area, as limited supplies become an issue elsewhere, McDaniel said.
“Careful use of our water will help us,” she noted.
Thriving manufacturing companies have continued to exist in Richland County — including some which formerly made parts for the automotive industry but “morphed into something else,” McDaniel said.
The retail business sector has been hit by technological change, as Internet sales change how consumers purchase some types of goods.
“It has had a serious impact,” McDaniel said. “The physical store is challenged by the Internet.”
Regardless of whether goods are sold in local shops or over the Internet in the future, the Mansfield area is poised to develop an employment base as a warehousing area. That is due largely to the city’s location, crisscrossed by I-71 and U.S. 30, she said.
It’s possible that more Richland County residents in the future could work for out-of-county employers, without having to commute long distances to Cleveland or Columbus.
McDaniel knows several people who work for traditional employers, but do that out of their homes, using Internet technology.
“They’re not stuffing envelopes. They have great jobs,” she said.
The RCDG official believes it’s crucial for young people to become proficient in science, math, engineering and other tech-era skills, as Richland County’s employment base changes.
“We are moving to a knowledge economy,” she said.
Betty Preston, North Central State College vice president for institutional advancement Betty, said the community college relies heavily on future projections for job openings in designing its slate of career programs.
NCSC President Don Plotts said the college has focused on modern manufacturing skills such as computer numerical control, to meet local companies’ future needs.
“You have to teach students how to program computers to run machines,” he said.
The biggest problem has been how to convince students to enroll in math, science, robotics, computer or engineering.
“Our problem is, quite frankly, we need to get younger and advanced students to sign up for these programs and get trained,” Plotts said. “We are not able to fill all of the positions that are available, especially in advanced manufacturing.”
McDaniel believes those who look at change as a potential opportunity will find good jobs.
“I think it’s an exciting thing. I think we’re rolling with the punches. I just think we have to be open-minded,” she said.