Difficult journey ending well for the economy of the Valley

Several months ago, an executive of a national oil and gas company that’s investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the burgeoning Utica shale play told The Vindicator’s editorial board that one of his major challenges is finding qualified workers in the Mahoning Valley to fill jobs in the industry.

The oilman from Oklahoma isn’t alone in his cry for help. We’ve heard from other officials of companies locating or expanding in the Valley and from economic development specialists who are on the front lines of the job-creation effort.

And while this situation is cause for concern — numerous initiatives have been launched to fill the companies’ demands for workers — it also is a welcome change from the past. For decades, the Valley was literally begging for jobs. It has taken more than 30 years since the collapse of the steel industry for the region to finally be able to boast of being a job creator.

Indeed, various independent studies have placed this region in the top tier nationally in terms of its recovery from the economic recession that began in the latter part of 2008.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the keynote speaker at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber’s annual luncheon last Thursday, acknowledged the economic turnaround when he said: “I have a sense, and I hope I’m right, that people are feeling better here — in a way they haven’t felt in a long time — and that thrills me.”

Kasich is right — as chamber President Tom Humphries and chamber board Chairman Peter Asimakopoulos showed in discussing the hundreds of millions of dollars in projects that are on the books this year.

In 2012, the chamber helped land nearly $377 million in investments; this year, the business organization is anticipating $760 million in projects.

The combination of the shale boom, manufacturing and non-manufacturing activities spell a word that has long been the goal for the Valley’s economy: Diversification.

After the mills closed and more than 50,000 residents found themselves on the unemployment rolls, the truth about the region was revealed: Most our eggs were in the steel basket and the auto industry. And when those two leading employers retrenched, local government officials and economic development entities were frozen in time.

Building blocks

That’s why it has taken so long for the Valley to recover. The building blocks of the new economy have been laid one at a time.

That effort is now paying dividends.

Specialty steel, as evidenced by V&M Star’s $1.1 billion investment in state-of-the-art plants, General Motors’ Lordstown assembly plant, Turning Technologies and other technology companies and the oil and gas industry all point to a future that is bright and promising.

The economic revival formula has attracted the attention of other regions of the country and has piqued the interest of old industrial cities around the world.

It is encouraging that government and non-government officials involved in the region’s economic revitalization haven’t forgotten the lessons of three decades ago.

Now, it’s up to residents of the region to get qualified and trained to fill the jobs in the new economy.

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