By Kalea Hall
In 14 days, Tom Humphries will hang up his hat after 20 years as president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
Yet he’s still busy, he says, as he focuses on the chamber’s mission to bring more jobs to the Mahoning Valley.
Tom Humphries VIDEO SET
“We have a lot of opportunities before us. Both large in capital investment and large in number of jobs – professional jobs within those. Since they are in the pipeline, I can’t talk about the particular jobs,” he said while meeting with The Vindicator editorial board.
“I can tell you we have been very busy, and I think you’ll see the two bigger ones [announcements] the first part of the year. I am excited about that. Those are positive things.”
He’s also busy trying to figure out how to fix a big problem the Valley faces: a lack of qualified workers.
“We have 16,000 jobs open right now in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull [counties],” Humphries said. “Every place in the country has a problem with human capital.”
Humphries, a Youngstown native who graduated from The Rayen School in 1962, has worked on a lot of problems in the past 20 years.
When he took over the chamber, a main goal was to diversify the economy.
The chamber focused on the area’s federal assets, especially the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. Under Humphries’ leadership, the chamber formed the Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission in 2015 “to preserve and promote the value of military operations between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, with an emphasis on the Youngstown Air Reserve Station and Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center,” according to the chamber’s website.
Humphries also mentioned the importance of the U.S. Postal Service Distribution Center in downtown Youngstown, which has been on the chopping block in recent years but remains open.
“I like those kinds of jobs,” he said. “I don’t like to see government make jobs because it costs all of us money, but I like those kinds of jobs because they are filling a service we all need.”
The economy needs to have a base to work off of since many industries fluctuate, Humphries explained, which is what federal jobs provide.
“It’s a good foundation,” he said.
Metal is another big part of the local economy.
“We are still the third-highest producing metal extrusion, aluminum extrusion [region] in the country as far as number of facilities and number of people,” Humphries said. “That’s a core business for us.”
The General Motors Lords- town Assembly Complex, where 3,000 are employed, is also a core business.
It’s good to be concerned, he said, about the future of GM Lordstown as Chevrolet Cruze sales continue to slump. The compact car had its second-worst sales month in November since it was released in November 2010.
“I think we should be concerned, it always makes us better when we are,” Humphries said. “It is helpless when you are not in charge.”
Bags of letters sent to Detroit testifying to the importance of GM to the Valley won’t influence GM’s commitment here, but quality, profit margins, safety record and attitude of the workforce all have a significant impact, Humphries said.
“If you aren’t producing a quality product with a modest net income minimum, then you are in trouble,” he said.
When automotive wiring harness maker Delphi went bankrupt, the chamber worked through it and Delphi came back, though not to the same extent.
“Try to be a team player,” Humphries said. “How do we influence them? A good community. People that work and care for one another. We have all of that here.”
Humphries is most proud of having the opportunity to lead the business community, but he admits he’s made mistakes along the way.
“There’s a lot of challenges in this job,” he said. “I have had some bad days, too.”
Specifically, Humphries recalled how some chamber board members were not happy with how he handled Senate Bill 5, which limited collective bargaining by public employees. Humphries voiced support for the bill, and the chamber was criticized by area unions and chamber members for doing so. Ohio voters repealed the bill in the 2011 general election.
“There were some disgruntled board members at that time that felt I did a poor job in handling that,” Humphries said. “That happens in any job.”
The chamber, though, still remains strong as the third largest in the state with 2,600 company members.
“To say that speaks volume of our business community because they are engaged and they know what we are doing and they support what we are doing,” he said.
The chamber focuses heavily on retention and expansion of business here, unlike the Western Reserve Port Authority’s economic development arm that provides funding for projects.
“You have to understand each person’s mission and purpose,” he said.
Humphries has had his own missions through the years. He’s passionate about education and the importance of preparing the next workforce. So passionate that he stepped up to find a solution to fix the failing Youngstown City School District. He was on the committee that developed the Youngstown Plan to put in place a CEO of the district, leaving the elected school board as only an advisory board. CEO Krish Mohip has now been at the district for 17 months.
“If you look at their results compared to [others], they were always on the bottom. They aren’t on the bottom anymore,” he said.
Humphries has worked by talking to parents and children, especially in city neighborhoods. And he said he tells them he doesn’t accept excuses.
“Those are challenges,” he said about obstacles such as poverty and teen pregnancies.
“Those are opportunities. To sit and say you can’t do anything about it is just not acceptable. What about the kid? And, frankly, what has the board of education in Youngstown done for the kids in the last three years, and, with all due respect, what’s the parent done? We keep nibbling at this. Krish Mohip is paying attention to teachers and kids, and now he is being distracted by the unions. So, what about the parents? Where are the parents in this situation?”
Humphries continued: “I don’t care that you are an unwed mother. That’s not my problem. That’s not my fault. I want to know where your responsibility is, and where mine lies.
“Why should I have a right to say that is because there’s more tax dollars going to Columbus coming back to that [district] than the one I live in that I pay. I have a right to say something about Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Dayton and Toledo. We all do.”
Humphries also wanted to see a consolidation of public school administrators in the Mahoning Valley to save money and use that money to fund higher education programs for students.
“The hard challenge I’ve had is I know I am not the smartest guy in the world,” he said. “I know there’s people with better ideas. Give me a better way to limit my taxes increasing while improving the educational attainment level. The world is knowledge based. It’s a knowledge-based economy.”
James Dignan, a former commander at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, will take over as head of the chamber Jan. 1.