MANSFIELD — Former GM worker Sidney Brown’s family is like many across Richland County.
The Browns are weathering a 40-year transition the Mansfield area is making from “factory town” to a far more diverse economy.
Brown, like many workers of his generation, found a job at the General Motor’s Ontario plant in 1960.
He worked there until retirement in 1993, happy with what he saw as a solid choice that turned out to be a lifetime job. But one of his sons who also worked at GM has been forced to look elsewhere for work, after the GM facility closed in 2010.
Today, Brown’s children work in jobs beyond the area’s traditional manufacturing base, at CenturyLink, Raintree and Richland County Juvenile Court.
The path toward economic security doesn’t seem as clear as it once did, said Sidney’s wife, Marie.
“Mansfield was booming, because we had all the factories and everything,” the 73-year-old Marie Brown said of her formative years. “Raising your children was easy.
“Then slowly everything left.”
The dramatic shifts in north central Ohio’s employment base since the 1970s has left older residents unsettled, and younger people embarking on new career directions, often leading them away from home.
Bridget McDaniel, community development director for the Richland Community Development Group, said the community ultimately is better off with a diverse list of smaller employers.
“To me, that is good because you don’t have all of your eggs in one basket,” McDaniel said. “Having a large number of small, vibrant employers keeps the community healthy. It saves you from the devastation you have when one employer leaves.”
When Sidney Brown Jr. followed his father into GM, at age 28, he’d already worked for several insurance companies, focusing on sales. But throughout those years he kept an eye on finding an opening at his father’s workplace.
“I had been trying to get into GM since I graduated from high school,” he said.
After acing an apprenticeship test, he landed a job. He earned a journeyman’s license four years later and worked for GM as an industrial truck repair maintenance man.
“I considered (it) to be really my life-end job,” he said.
Many workers were stunned two years ago when GM closed the plant, Brown said. Over his 16 years with the company, “a buzz in the air” about closing resurfaced so often workers interpreted it as pressure management was exerting to increase performance.
“When they came in and closed the plant, it was a big shock to everybody,” he said.
Many GM families ended up taking transfers. Sidney Brown Jr. remained. But effects of the 2008 global recession lingered. He went for months without finding a good opening.
“Even looking online, everything that was available was out of town somewhere,” he said. “I think it’s really kind of tough to find a good job right now — even with years of experience.”
A call from a friend who works at Richland County Juvenile Court turned into a good job. Today Sidney Brown Jr. works for the court’s community service program, taking convicted juveniles to locations where they can work off their sentence by picking up litter.
For those still working in manufacturing, Richland County’s employment base continues to change. Advances in technology over time have created shifts in available positions, Braintree Business Development Center CEO Bob Cohen said
Robotics now complete many tasks on factory floors that people once handled. Computers quickly dispatch record-sorting tasks it took cadres of clerical workers to complete, he said.
“There’s less and less demand for routine activities,” Cohen said. “More and more, we’re seeing the need for specialized skills.”
If workers don’t regularly update their skills to grasp new processes, they often get left behind, the Braintree executive said.
Business owners face the same pressures to keep pace with change.
The companies most likely to thrive in the future feature leaders who can figure out how to tweak a current process and produce an innovation — either an improved product, or an ability to provide services more quickly and efficiently, Cohen said.
Some of those employers who put their stamp on Richland County’s employment base in the future may have gotten a jump start at Braintree’s 80,000 square foot facility on Fifth Street.
For example, Hess Industries, a tool and die shop founded in 1999, rents space at the business development center. The company had to navigate a philosophical change the tool-and-die industry made from machinery processes to software processes, Cohen said.
In the past, tool and die was perceived “as kind of a dirty job — something your grandpa did,” owner Mark Hess said. “(Today) it’s a much cleaner environment.”
The company uses computer-aided drafting to design dies and complex shapes. Workers use precision computer numerical control cutting equipment — including a machine which can cut metal as much as 16-1/2 inches thick.
To keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, Hess Industries has updated or replaced portions of its computer systems 33 times over the past 13 years, he said. “So we’ve obsoleted 23 of them,” Hess said.
The tool and die company’s largest customers are in the automotive, lawn and garden, appliance and motorcycle industries.
The company is staffed by highly skilled workers who expect to learn new skills until the day they retire, Hess said.
Other Braintree tenant companies are working on innovations in different areas.
Bryan Benedict, of Galion, owns Rapid Forms. His company is based on a need the construction industry has to protect unfinished rows of concrete block from rain, as mortar sets overnight. As an alternative to plastic tarp, Benedict developed reusable caps which can be set securely over the top of rows.
Another company renting space at Braintree, LapKeyBoard, is run by Manoj Sinha, who looked into ways to prevent back and neck injuries in people who work office jobs. The company provides ergonomic keyboard platforms designed to help people who use computers for long periods, so they can maintain good posture, with less physical fatigue.
“Obviously, we’re building businesses of the future,” Cohen said. “So that’s going to produce jobs of the future.”