Friday, May 18, 2001

Census reveals dearth of young workers

Finding help worries employers

By John Eckberg and John J. Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A key number in the latest census snapshot of the Tristate is making employers uneasy. The seven counties of Greater Cincinnati region saw a 13 percent drop during the 1990s in the number of people ages 25-34 — to 259,733 from 299,098.

        Experts say it's a factor in an ongoing labor shortage that might get worse. That's because the decline hits a key demographic: entry-level workers who will become the supervisors and foremen of the next decade.

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        The labor shortage has already hurt an array of Tristate businesses, such as Blue Chip Pavement Maintenance Co., a Linwood firm unable to hire truck drivers. “So what ends up happening is that equipment I have invested in sits there rusting,” owner Mark Schmidt said.

        The census numbers show the dip in the 25-to-34-year-old group was even more dramatic across Ohio. Between 1990 and 2000, that group shrank by 15 percent.

        The drop makes some labor market observers wonder if skilled younger workers are leaving Ohio for technology and higher-paying jobs in other regions. “Maybe Cincinnati has been a little too conservative on work/life balance issues,” said Nancy Pistler, president of Target Solutions, a human resources consulting firm in Blue Ash.

        Cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston, and just about anywhere in California, are drawing transplants because they offer high-technology opportunities, she said. “People in the X-generation are attracted to where the action is, and that hasn't been Cincinnati,” she said.

        The potential of future labor shortages is hard to face for local employers already struggling to fill jobs.

        For a month this spring, Mr. Schmidt, the 38-year-old owner of Blue Chip Pavement, couldn't avoid seeing a daily reminder of that labor shortage.

        In the construction yard of his company sat three dump trucks.

        The trucks, representing an investment of $150,000, were idled during the first four weeks of the spring construction season. The trucks didn't move because the company couldn't find and hire drivers to get the trucks on the road.

        “There's no question about it,” said Mr. Schmidt, who owns the company that employs 55 workers. “People are not selecting the construction trades as a viable career path, and there's no question we've seen a decline in the quality of personnel who are interested.”

        While having three driverless trucks in the yard did not paralyze Blue Chip Pavement, it did eventually lead to higher costs.

        Blue Chip Pavement needed material moved, so it had to turn to employment brokers to find independent driver/operators who owned their own trucks in order to get the work done.

        Mr. Schmidt thinks the labor shortage is going to lead to some rough work-force challenges in the years to come because today's new hire is sometimes a supervisor a decade from now.

        “Your apprentice laborers become your equipment operators and your foremen,” Mr. Schmidt said.

        Many communities are losing population among recent college graduates, which fit into this age group, because the social life does not fit their needs, futurist Roger Herman said.

        He suggested that what has happened in Ohio and Greater Cincinnati is not so much a brain drain as it is a talent drain.

        “There's a difference between intellectual ability and people who will get a job done,” said Mr. Herman, chief executive of the Herman Group, a strategic business consultancy based in Greensboro, N.C.

        “It may be young people who are looking for the right kind of community.”

        But Ron Bird, chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C., suggested that there has not been much of a talent drain but that fewer people are in that key demographic.

        “It's about 18 percent fewer than there were 10 years ago,” Mr. Bird said.

        “We are already seeing the beginnings of the problem, and it's going to get worse over the next 20 years,” he said.


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