by Ramon Taylor
Brandy Corwin likes that she can now wear makeup and nice clothes to work. That is because she is no longer working on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I was laid off multiple times, and having a family, you can’t rely on that,” she said.
For the past five months, Corwin, 28, has been working at Credit Adjustments, Inc. (CAI), a debt collection agency headquartered in her hometown of Defiance, Ohio, an hour outside the city of Toledo.
Corwin was a third-generation manufacturing worker and thought the assembly line was her fate. But now, she no longer has to work overtime and weekends to make ends meet. “I finally have a good work-to-home life balance,” she said, “and I didn’t have that before.”
Her two children “love seeing me come home dressed up,” Corwin said. “My son, he compliments me all the time: Wow, Mommy, your hair looks really nice,’ or ‘Wow, Mom, I love your dress,’ because I’m not walking home in dirty jeans and steel-toe boots.”
CAI opened its first area call center in downtown Toledo last January, providing 60 new job opportunities, with the goal of adding 150 more over the next year and 500 in the area over a three-year span.
“There’s been intentional investments in Toledo,” said Hayley Studer, CAI Chief Mission Officer, adding that much of the company’s regional workforce comes from health care, call centers, and customer service-based jobs.
As a result of the new investment, downtown Toledo is undergoing a “renaissance,” says Wendy Gramza, President and CEO of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, although the unemployment rate at 5.3 percent exceeds the national rate of 3.9 percent.
Brighter days for manufacturing
Ohio lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the Great Recession that began in 2008 and its wake.
But employment numbers have improved considerably in the past three years.
Ohio has the third-largest statewide manufacturing workforce in the country, and the region’s advanced manufacturing industry has generated more than 4,900 jobs since 2015, along with $2.2 billion in capital investment, according to Regional Growth Partnership, an economic development group serving Toledo and northwest Ohio.
“We all believe that President [Donald] Trump has led the charge for this,” said Tim Copsey, director of new business inquiries at Paragon Tempered Glass, in Antwerp, Ohio. “We’re getting back onto a level playing field.”
“There was an optimism on January 1 of 2017, [shortly after Trump’s election victory],” said Larry Manz, director of sales and marketing at InSource Technologies, a Paulding-based contract manufacturing and engineering company. “People started buying capital equipment. They started investing. They started consuming goods, and all these things came together.”
Blue-collar workers in Ohio’s northwest manufacturing stronghold along Lake Erie helped propel Trump to presidential victory over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2016 with 52.1 percent of the state’s vote.
Voters will be watching “who is for and who is against” Trump’s policies in the upcoming November election, Copsey says.
One such voter, Jason, is back at work after being laid off from his job as a maintenance worker in the aftermath of the recession.
“I was looking for a job every damn day,” Jason recalled. He asked VOA not to reveal his last name out of privacy concerns.
For several months in 2011, the 37-year-old performed a delicate balancing act, cutting everyday expenses — on the brink of having his water, gas and electric shut off — while searching for a decent-paying job to provide for his wife and children.
Now, the father of three is an automotive parts maintenance worker at Okamoto Sandusky Manufacturing in Sandusky, Ohio, working roughly 60 hours a week.
Jason credits both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump for having a “part to play” in reversing the industry’s misfortunes. He believes manufacturing success stemmed from economic growth that started in the Obama administration, and has under Trump benefited from a fortified global economy, an increase in domestic demand and tax incentives for businesses.
With no particular political affiliation, he voted for Trump in 2016. His mind is not entirely made up on this November’s midterm elections, but: “I haven’t heard anything from the Democratic side that would really sway my vote at this point.”
He does have strong feelings about politicians: “We don’t care who it is, just don’t screw us over,” he said. “Don’t lie to us. Don’t screw us over.”
Less certain future
Across the region, manufacturing officials who spoke with VOA said while they increased hiring in 2017, it has since leveled off. Among their concerns: stiff competition for skilled labor, a housing and infrastructure shortage in rural areas, and rising health care costs.
Gramza notes that growth in regional manufacturing hasn’t translated to extensive new job creation in the sector.
“A lot of our companies are innovating and automating,” Gramza told VOA. “While we’ve added new companies and new jobs, the number of people that are needed to work in the companies are keeping our overall count pretty stable.”
Democrat Jim Maldonado, an industrial electrician at a Chrysler manufacturing plant in Perrysburg, Ohio, is not optimistic about his industry’s future. His concern: tariffs on Chinese goods and a tax cut-induced rising deficit.
“Right now, [Trump’s trade war] is in its infancy,” Maldonado said. “Do I know if I’m going to lose my job? No, I don’t.”
A self-described “realist … not a dreamer,” Maldonado says electing candidates that “support working people” is his top priority this November, adding that no one in his plant likes being told who to vote for. Six years from retirement, his concern lies beyond 2018, even though he will pocket an additional $2,000 due to Republican tax cuts passed last December.
“Somebody is going to pay for that,” Maldonado said, concerned that entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare could eventually bear the brunt.
“[Trump] doesn’t need Social Security, and the people with him don’t need it, but who’s going to be dependent on that?” he asked emphatically. “I am — at some point!”
Jerry Zielke, President of Northwest Ohio Regional Economic Development (NORED), describes one tactic for retaining a younger workforce: “Make awareness of what’s there, [and] try to get them engaged.”
“Getting beyond the idea that working a factory job is dirty and not very profitable and looked down upon, the factories — many of the ones I go into — are very clean, and it’s high tech, and they’re well lit, and they try to create family environments,” added Tami Norris, training coordinator at Northwest State Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center.
Toledo-native Marcus Odoms, 40 years old and a recent graduate of Northwest State’s Industrial Automation Maintenance certificate program, left the production side of manufacturing in part to relieve stress on his body, while gaining “hands on” experience with machinery.
When he began the program 12 months ago, Odoms said the starting wage was $18 to $21 per hour for industrial maintenance technicians. Now, he says, it’s up to $24.
Recently wedded with a newborn son and a certificate in hand, he says the decision will pay off. “We make a better case for raising my family in northwest Ohio,” Odoms said.
And the election?
Trump is planning to visit Ohio on October 12 to generate support for vulnerable congressional candidates. Only a few of Ohio’s congressional seats appear to be in play in this November’s election, and none are in the northwestern part of the state.
While congressional races in Ohio’s northwest seem to be reliably red, Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, appears comfortably headed for re-election. And Ohio’s race to replace Republican Governor John Kasich is pretty much tied, having just become the most expensive in the state’s history.
It will take “a mixture of the right Democrats with the right Republicans” to keep positive momentum going, says Copsey of Paragon Tempered Glass.