Transcript: “Is Workforce the Chicken or the Egg ?” – with Barrett Thomas


Barrett Thomas, Director of Economic Development in Richland County, discusses how workforce factors into Economic Development efforts, automation trends in various industry sectors, and talent alignment.


CLINT: Welcome to the Workforce Pulse podcast. My name is Clint Knight. I’m the Director of Workforce Development at the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development. We’re going to bring in a variety of guests to talk about the state of the workforce in mid-Ohio and how it relates to the state. We’re going to present opportunities, ideas, and resources to grow the workforce, talk about continuing to educate our workforce, and ways that we can work together. Made possible by the Area 10 Workforce Development Board, this is the Workforce Pulse. 

We are here with the Director of Economic Development for the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development, Barrett Thomas, my coworker. We spend most of the week together and here we are on a podcast. As we’ve talked about for months.  

BARRETT: Months, months, just recording the stuff that we do.  

CLINT: Yeah, so yeah, that’s what we’re here to talk about economic development and workforce development and how do they relate to each other? 

In the first few episodes of this podcast, we’ve talked to the Lieutenant Governor about where we are as a state, and what the opportunities are for employees and employers alike to upskill to meet the needs that we have. We’ve talked about marketing to potential employees. How do you reach them? Where do you reach them? What do you tell them? 

So, what I want to talk to you today about is what’s happening in economic development that we’re seeing as a trend in Ohio and how workforce development relates to that which is a big, big answer? 

BARRETT: It’s a big question. I think a long time ago if you go, you know 20 years ago, economic development didn’t really consider workforce development as part of something that they had to be concerned with, so the industry has grown a lot throughout the past couple of years, I mean 10-20 years, and grown in scope of what economic developers need to work on and workforce development, even before the current labor shortage (and it has been a big concern), and we are better off for having workforce development be a part of what we do. 

There’s a whole industry of people involved in economic development that hasn’t been connected before. People like you, sitting in that seat, connecting business and education and pulling all those things together, along with all the other sorts of education partnerships, pulling all that stuff together so that we make that connection is something that we haven’t had before and is really kind of changing the way economic development is done worldwide. 

CLINT: So, the ins and outs of economic development on a daily basis, you’re working with existing companies to diversify, to grow, to create more jobs, to become bigger, find a new direction, or you’re working with existing companies to relocate to the region or the area, you’re working with people to start brand new companies, you’re looking to help grow business in general, correct? 

BARRETT: I usually think of it in three different categories. One is working with existing companies that are here, helping them solve problems that they run into, helping them capitalize on growth opportunities that they have. The second category would be companies that aren’t here that don’t have a presence in Richland County and attracting them here. We call that business attraction. They’re going to open a new location and they have to put it somewhere, they want it somewhere in these eight states. How do we find the right site with the right people, the right resources, and the right community? The third category would be community projects that have a big economic impact. All of those things go together to create economic development, and then that requires workforce development because all those projects need people and the people need the right place to live. And so that’s the community development side. Those three pillars are kind of the basis of what we’ve been doing in Richland County for economic development for the past 10 years. 

CLINT: So, over the last three years, obviously 2-1/2 years, we have struggled with a major barrier to getting to work, right? The workforce was depleted because a lot of people exited the workforce, we couldn’t go to work, and we couldn’t get to work. Prior to that, as workforce development relates to economic development, you mentioned that workforce available wasn’t something that was walking alongside economic development. Economic development was just, let’s grow the business. Let’s grow the economic prosperity and the workforce will follow? Is that what was happening? 

BARRETT: Yeah, I think there was a general maybe the top-down macroeconomic perspective of, if we create jobs, people will come to fill them. Labor is supposed to move to the jobs, and that will happen. It works sometimes, but clearly, those days are past. I mean, we have so many more jobs than we can fill in Richland County, in the state of Ohio, and in our nation. It’s not a local problem. I mean this same conversation you and I are having could be had in Texas which has some of the biggest economic development metrics. It could happen in Arizona. It could happen in California. This is happening everywhere.  

CLINT: It’s not unique.  

BARRETT: It’s not unique here. We need to be more strategic in how we are pulling those resources together to create a pipeline of talent. I mean now I’m using your words, so pipelines of talent are the things that are really going to solve long-term business needs for people. 

CLINT: And that was a conversation that began, to be fair, prior to when the pandemic occurred. Building those seamless talent pipelines was a conversation that was beginning to grow, and how do we reach further back into the education sectors, to a younger age to expose them to careers? 

Because I believe what we were beginning to see was potentially a population problem, not only a population problem, not just a lack of people to fill the jobs but a lack of interest or understanding of how those young people or how people get into jobs that are being created that have never been in reality before. There are brand new jobs that didn’t exist in the past, and that’s a direct result of economic development.  

We were talking earlier about the necessity of automation. So, automation is something that has been a hot topic and it’s something that is occurring as we speak. We’re seeing it here in the region in mid-Ohio more and more. From the economic development perspective, what is the necessity of automation? 

BARRETT: That’s a good question. So, specifically, as it relates to manufacturing, we have fewer people employed in manufacturing as a sector today than we had ten years ago, and we have way more productivity. I mean, we’ve never had more productivity than we have today. A lot of that is automation. So, our companies are bidding against other businesses in the same space nationwide, and if we don’t automate our local companies, they’re not going to be competitive in winning those bids with their customers and their customers’ customers.  

Automation is required as we move into Industry 4.0, which is a kind of a collection of robotics automation, the Internet of Things. Just-in-time manufacturing kind of came before that. But like all of those things, additive manufacturing, those are the new things that are happening in manufacturing. Collectively, we call those Industry 4.0. If we don’t move our companies in that direction, again, you know, I’m in economic development. I’m not moving those companies. Those companies see that market opportunity and they’re doing that on their own. We leverage resources that we have in the region and in the state to help them do that and do it more effectively and more cost-effectively.  

But our companies have to start automating and they are automating. That’s how we’re hitting these productivity levels. So, the interesting thing as it relates to the workforce in nearly every project that I talk to companies about is when they are adding automation, they are also adding new employees. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I mean that’s what they’re all doing. 

CLINT: And it’s different types of work, though, different types of positions.  

BARRETT: Absolutely. Higher skillsets, different skill sets, a lot of upskilling opportunities that you have, our companies are going to need to use those to build new skill sets into the employees they have so that they can keep functioning in these new higher-tech jobs. 

CLINT: So, there has, you know, been an age-old conversation, a long-time conversation that robots are going to take our jobs, right? That’s the traditional thought. But, what we’re hearing from employers that are developing is that yes, this robot may do a job that three other people did, but because I have a robot in the building now, or I have this level of automation and this new level of technology, there are three other jobs that are being created that are completely different. Not only are they completely different, but they’re likely higher paid.  

BARRETT: Right.  

CLINT: Which is an interesting concept. 

BARRETT: So, one of the examples of a local company that did this is Edge Plastics. They had some robots that we’re going to do some automation, and you know frankly, they had a lot of trepidation in their employees thinking, hey, that same thing, these robots are going to take my job and it was a difficult transition. They were expensive, so they bought a few of them and tried them. Once they were in the building, in production, then all the employees were like, “Hey, when are you putting a robot on my line? That’s the part of the job I don’t want to do either,” so I mean, robots are really taking those, they’re most effective doing very repetitive things that, frankly, we don’t, the humans don’t want to do. 

We don’t want to keep setting up boxes. We don’t want to keep taking parts off the line and sticking them in the box, so when you automate that with a robot, the people that are there are happier because they don’t have to do those same things anymore. 

CLINT: The aftereffect of introducing that technology in your operation has an interesting effect because you have to program that robot, right? We’ve talked about that for years. Somebody had to program it and tell it what to do. Yesterday we were talking about the term “cobots,” so you have a human who is working alongside the robot, may be feeding parts, it’s doing the work, you’re taking the part out, a variety of things “cobots,” and we’re talking about manufacturing. But then the robots, that technology puts out an incredible amount of data on its own productivity. It’s reporting how many pieces and parts, how much time, how many errors, what the quality of the work was, and something has to be done with that data.  

So, then you have another job that probably hasn’t existed that much in manufacturing before, a business data analyst position, where you have to take all of that and turn it into a story. What does that mean? What do these numbers mean? What does this time study mean that was produced by a robot? So, there are three completely different positions that didn’t exist before that now do exist, because you created that automation. And to be fair, I mean that’s not isolated in manufacturing. We’re using robots in healthcare, or we’re using not just robots, but other types of technology in healthcare to be more precise, to be more efficient, and track information more securely and efficiently. 

BARRETT: Yeah, when I’m having surgery, I’d like that doctor to be very precise. It would be really nice.  

CLINT: So, it’s not just manufacturing, it’s a level of automation that is being introduced in a variety of ways. Even when you go to the retail store, there’s a level of automation there. It’s a “cobot.” I mean, you’re checking yourself out for both efficiency and necessity, workforce-wise, I believe. 

BARRETT: I think your example of the person on the production line in a manufacturing facility doing the job versus having a “cobot” there, working with them, or a robot doing the stacking, kind of ending that production line, you could have asked the employee for feedback on that day’s production, and they could have told you, they could have summarized in their head and told you what production was like. But often those conversations didn’t happen. So, the robot is giving you not just a summary or point in time data, but they’re giving you telemetry data like data is just streaming off of that robot all the time.  

And that volume of data that the companies are collecting is something that they’re not used to handling. There’s a big need for business data analysts to take what is a giant amount of data that they’re not used to and cull that into, these are the useful things, this is what we should track, and finding the signal in the noise, as it were, to see what’s valuable? What’s actionable? How do we tweak production? What does this robot and this data tell us about where we should go in the future? All of that stuff, those are all opportunities that our companies didn’t have before, which all kind of feeds into that Industry 4.0 because there’s a lot of data in everything involved in those 4.0 technologies. 

CLINT: You mentioned the level of productivity is much higher than it ever has been, and that’s because that’s the direction that we’re headed in.  

BARRETT: Yeah.  

CLINT: So, it’s not replacing the workforce, it’s changing the workforce.  

BARRETT: It’s changing the workforce, it’s getting. Frankly, I think those jobs are more interesting, and we’ll have an easier time doing employee retention when employees are more engaged and more thoughtful. If you’re looking at this mountain of data and trying to decide, how do I find what’s valuable here? That’s a unique thing that you’re going to do there and then the next day it’s going to be a different set of data and you get to do that puzzle again, and that’s interesting. You’re not doing the same thing over and over.  

CLINT: So, one of the things we’ve done in the region is we looked at a study. They gave us data on demand versus supply when it comes to skills and certification levels, whether that’s a short-term certificate in some sort of welding or technology-based, whether it’s a two-year associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, whatever the level of secondary education is. This study talks about how many of those certifications do we have and how many of those actual jobs do we have in the region?  

This is a conversation on the first episode we had with the Lieutenant Governor talking about elevating the skill level of the state in order to meet the demand. Some of the interesting things that we saw here are that there’s a projected increase in demand for positions like training and developmental specialists. It just seems to increase 10% in the region over the next five years. That’s the projection. So, training in a developmental specialist. We were visiting a company recently, they have a training coordinator. Companies are adding retention coordinators and their employee development directors. 

BARRETT: These are new positions or at least new takes on positions that we didn’t have before. So, focusing on employee retention and crafting culture, are big deals. And yeah, it’s exciting to see companies putting people and making that their job title. 

CLINT: So that trend you know for that specific position was showing an increase across the region, that we’re creating more and more of those positions because we’re seeing a necessity to keep what we have, not only to keep the employees that we have but to elevate their skill level. This is like I said, something that we talked about in the previous episodes. 

BARRETT: So, when we talk about training and development specialists, part of that is investing in employees, and creating the culture that says, “We value you as an employee and we want you to stick around.” When we look at employee retention, wages, what you pay, and how much you monetarily value that person, it’s clearly important.  

But the other huge part of that is culture and employee culture, making this a place where you want to work. That is a huge thing that’s been overlooked in the past, I think, or I guess left to grow organically might be a more apt description. Now companies are trying to more specifically craft their culture to say, “you’re included and you’re valued and we’re going to value you in this way,” and that goes a long way toward employee retention, which certainly in a labor market like this, is a huge deal, making sure that you retain the valuable talent that you’ve got. 

CLINT: By investing in employees’ intellectual and skill levels and helping them add more value to the company, as well.  

BARRETT: Absolutely. 

CLINT: So, raising, as we talked about that, raising their skill level and raising the bar for that individual.  

BARRETT: This creates more value inside the company, then they can get paid more. I mean all of these things fit together and it makes us happy when we talk about it and it actually works.  

CLINT: Right. You know, which is why I joked with you about titling this episode, “Is workforce the chicken or the egg?” Which, again, 


CLINT: Do you attract a business and then raise the workforce to meet the business? We’re seeing currently in the work that we do, you have to show that you have systems in place, you have the population of skill in order to attract the business. 

BARRETT: Absolutely. So, when I’m doing business attraction, trying to tell companies that Richland County is the place you should locate your next facility, they want to know, do you have land that has utilities? That’s pretty basic, and I spend a lot of my time making sure that we do have that. The next question is always, do you have the people we need? And if you can’t prove that, the conversation is over. I mean, it’s finished. The work that we’re doing really goes towards proving, in very demonstratable ways, what we’re doing to make sure that we have pipelines of talent that will continue to supply companies with the people that they need. 

CLINT: I think we’re doing a really good job of working together, collaborating, and coming up with new ways. In an earlier episode, we had Doctor Diab from North Central, we talked about the polymer program. 

BARRETT: Great program. 

CLINT: They worked with several companies to develop, the engineering program that they developed alongside the Ohio State University of Mansfield to make sure they weren’t duplicative, but they were at the same time, meeting the needs of the local employers by using those business advisory councils. Tons of collaboration in our region, not just in the county, but in the region, to talk about where are we going and how we make sure that our workforce is there when we get there, right?  

So now that I’ve brought that up. I want to talk briefly before we wrap up about that regional collaboration. We’ve recently worked together to create a CEDS, so I’m going let you talk about what a CEDS is, and then we’ll talk about how the workforce fits into that. 

BARRETT: I think everyone already knows what a CEDS is, right? A CEDS is C-E-D-S, a comprehensive economic development strategy, and it is more exciting than it sounds. We do work collaboratively. Everything we work on is big, that’s the fun part of our jobs. Everything is big, but we don’t do anything big on our own. There are lots and lots of partners that we work with, and I would love to give them all a shout-out here, but I think this podcast to get long. They’re looking at me like no, no, don’t do that. That’s going to take way too long. 

The CEDS is a collaborative kind of regional approach to economic development, and this region is Ashland, Richland, Crawford, and Wyandot Counties. I always say it that way, because I think geography. It’s really based on US 30, which is an underutilized asset that we all share. It has one of the highest travel reliability rates, meaning you can drive at or above the speed limit 92%-93% of the time, and I mean that’s a great number in ODOT land. It’s a great freeway, it’s being rebuilt in Mansfield right now, so you can’t drive quite that fast now, but that project will be finished soon and it’s a great piece of the logistic system to move products and people around.  

So, that’s how we put it together and it’s really a collaborative approach from those counties to say, we’re all fairly similar. If a company is looking at locating here, they’re interested in that small-town feel and the work ethic of the people here. If I don’t have a site for them inside Richland County that fits their needs, they might find it in Crawford County or Ashland County or Wyandot County. And they’re going to be happy in those places because we’re all fairly similar. 

So, we went through the process of a SWOT analysis to find out what we do well, what we don’t do well, and what opportunities are on the hook that we can go capitalize on? And you know, what storms are headed our way that we need to be careful of. In light of those things, we came up with a plan of six goals, things that we want to achieve that we think are going to move the region forward in all the ways that we need to do development, so economic development, attracting companies, growing businesses, workforce development, skilling up the talent that we have here, and attracting new talent, and community development, making sure that these are great places that people can live. There’s housing. There are attractions that people are interested in, and this is the place to live, raise a family, work, worship, and all those things. 

CLINT: So, all of those things are directly related to economic prosperity.  

BARRETT: Absolutely.  

CLINT: You’re stretching it out, stretching out the effort. I mean, you and I are specific to Richland County, Ohio. But you’re specifically stretching out the effort from Wyandot, all the way to Ashland as it stretches down US Route 30.  

BARRETT: Right. So, I mean the county lines are imaginary lines that we draw on a map. There’s no line of sand on the ground. Labor sheds, so kind of like a watershed, like where water drains out of a region, there are labor sheds, which is kind of the area people are willing to drive from/to work at a company. Those labor sheds don’t care about county lines. Most people in the world don’t care about county lines. I understand that my job is within the county lines, I understand that’s unusual. We’re trying to take a more regional approach to how do things work here and what can we do? How to move forward. 

CLINT: We have information and data that shows what we call the inflow and outflow of employees.  

BARRETT: Commuting patterns. 

CLINT: Yeah, some of the commuting patterns information, you know, it shows we share a lot of employees across county lines on a daily basis, and then we have for years. It’s not that far to commute from Mansfield to Ashland, or Ashland to Mansfield. There are a considerable number of people commuting from Richland to Crawford, Crawford into Richland, and the proof of that is not only is US 30 good for moving ‘things,’ but it’s good for moving people too, right? So, we share a lot of people and so we should work together, right, for economic, prosperity and all. 

BARRETT: We’re All Better Together. Absolutely yeah. The rising tide raises all of our boats. I mean, it’s a metaphor that maybe gets overused, but it works. You know, success in Crawford County does good things for Richland County. Absolutely. 

CLINT: Awesome. Well, that’s a lot of stuff. I know we can sit here and talk about this for 3-1/2 hours, but I wanted to give a quick.  

BARRETT: Oh, we do.  

CLINT: We do, and we do it on a daily basis, we just don’t record all of it, but it’s a good overview of how workforce fits into the economic development strategy and efforts. Again, as we said, we talk about this all day, every day, but the regional aspect of it is important to continue to build those relationships regionally, which we all do work together really well, and to go beyond that and actually develop a strategy on both the economic and the workforce side, so it’s good stuff.  


I guess if we want to add in another economic/workforce story somewhere when you’re talking about attracting workforce, I did a study a couple of years back where we’ve looked at the skills of our workforce and the manufacturing/building skillsets. We have three times the national average in Richland County, so we are makers. We make stuff out of metal and plastic. We’re really good at it. We’ve been doing it for a long time.  

What that means is we’re short on something else. And what we’ve traditionally been short on is tech talent. You and I have had the conversation about, how we build up that tech talent. From my side, I’ve had conversations with tech companies saying, “Hey, you should be in Richland County. This is a great place for you to be and grow.” And they go, “well, show me the people, you don’t have them, OK, sorry. I’m going somewhere else.” And then you have talked about training people and if you train tech talent, they’re going to then look for a job. If we don’t have those jobs here, they’re going somewhere else, and we’re training someone else’s talent. So that’s a chicken and egg problem that we have between economic development and workforce development.  

And really what it takes is someone saying, “we’re going to do this here and this is how it’s going to go. And we’re going to make the people.” The 179th changing mission from a flying mission to a cyber warfare mission is, from a community standpoint, a hard pill to swallow. I totally understand that. I have friends that are pilots and mechanics, and they’re great people. I’m not sure where any of them are going to land, but as a community, it’s going to be sad to not hear the C130s flying overhead. When I hear them, I always talk to my son like, “Hey, there it is. There’s the C130.” I’m going to love every last flyover that I hear.  

But as a community moving towards that cyber warfare mission is going to bring a whole bunch of really highly skilled technical talent into this community. If they’re living somewhere else and working in the guard, they’re going to be here every month. And then we have the opportunity to try to employ them full-time during the rest of the week in other companies that we can then attract, so that one change, while it’s bittersweet, is going to give the community opportunities and that that is, to me, a generational opportunity that we are going to make sure that we capitalize, you and I are going to make sure that we capitalize on, to make sure that we are moving the community forward.  

So, all these programs, like all the automation, all the changes in health care, a lot of them are all towards tech, and having a higher-skilled technical workforce in all the other areas of technology is absolutely going to serve us well moving forward in the future. I mean cybersecurity is going to be a huge issue. Everything we need is going to need to be hardened. Autonomous vehicles that were you know, our Tesla’s on autopilot and our flying drones, we’re going to be in the advanced automation stuff that’s happening in the state of Ohio, all of that stuff is going to be hardened so that it can’t be hacked. We’re going to build and grow that skillset in Richland County and it’s going to be a fantastic future. 

CLINT: Everyone is going to benefit from that. We may have the talent here to attract other tech companies, but as you said, that tech talent will be utilized in manufacturing and healthcare, cybersecurity, and education.  

BARRETT: Yeah.  

CLINT: There will be skills here that’ll be able to benefit the entire region when they’re located here. 

BARRETT: Yeah. That’s a huge opportunity for us. 

CLINT: Awesome. OK, Barrett, I appreciate you coming in and recording the podcast with me.  

BARRETT: It was fun. 

CLINT: I’ll see you back at work later. 

All right, thanks. 


CLINT: Thanks for listening to the Workforce Pulse podcast. Make sure you subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts so that you can be aware of when the next episode is available.