The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Jan. 28, 2022

Admitting we have a problem

The first step is admitting that you have a problem. Then you have to figure out what the problem is.

Economic conditions here are not good, but most of you already know that. According to the 2010 census, Van Wert County had the lowest per capita income of any county in northwest Ohio except Hardin County. That’s right, Paulding County is richer than us. Even counting the south side of Lima, so is Allen.

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

Wages are stagnant and have been. Find me a business established in the last ten years that is making someone rich. Farmers had a nice bounce for a few years but now crop prices are down and property taxes are up — way up. In the middle of this, another generation of bright young people are in the process of finding greener pastures elsewhere, mostly in the big cities where jobs are plentiful and wages are anything but stagnant.

In the Commissioners’ Office, we created a new County Economic Development office to answer one primary question: Why are our best young people almost all moving away and can anything be done about it? This is really the ultimate question — if the intelligent and motivated young people decide that leaving is a better choice than staying, it’s only a matter of time until bad economic conditions become permanent.

Director Sarah Smith eventually found an answer at a seminar and in a book. Suddenly, all of it made horrifying sense. We don’t have a jobs problem in our county, or even this region. We have a demographic problem, something infinitely harder to solve.

In a previous column, I did what was basically a book review of When the Boomers Bail by Mark Lautman. I won’t retread that whole column here and you can get that book on Amazon. (All of my columns are on www.toddwolfrum.com.) The crux of that book was that the Boomers were the first generation in history not to sufficiently replace themselves with children and there approaches a massive workforce shortage as that generation reaches retirement.

Our county demographics are ahead of Lautman’s thesis. The kids had already been leaving here for a few decades. Now, as the Boomer generation begins to retire, there is not only no one to replace them from the Millennials now entering the workforce, but, because of the population loss in our county over the last twenty years, there is also a shortage between the retirees and the beginners.

And because we lack people of working age, we also lack sufficient numbers of kids in the county that are going to be reaching working age over the next 10-15 years who are likely to stay here and be productive.

The problem is unique in history. You might see our unemployment rate in the paper. I’m here to tell you that those numbers mean absolutely nothing. Most of our county employers have job openings, some have high-paying job openings. The trouble is finding someone willing to get an education or just a warm body that can pass a drug test and show up for work. If there are open jobs not being filled, the actual unemployment rate is zero.

At zero unemployment, the problem is not attracting business, the problem is keeping the ones you’ve got. How long can a company last if it can’t find employees? What company is going to locate here if the businesses that are already here can’t find workers? Funny thing about successful businessmen — they’re not stupid.

This all makes the adage “If you build it they will come” obsolete. Not to say that someone filling the Megasite would not help. If a large employer paying premium wages filled that 1,600 acres north of town, we can work with that upside. But if it happened tomorrow, it is difficult to see how our existing businesses would survive. Premium wages would effectively draw away all the good employees from our existings who are already short workers. How long could they last?

Further, the Boomers retiring is a regional problem —  we’re not going to be able to draw very much from our neighbors’ populations. Our former state representative, Jim Hoops, was recently up to our office. He now works for Northwest State in Archbold and I asked him if the workforce problem is, indeed, national as Lautman suggests. He affirmed for northwest Ohio and said that both Sauder’s and Campbell Soup, two big employers in that region, are having trouble finding employees.

I’ve heard it said that, whatever else we do, we need to keep a strong connection with Columbus because that’s who’s going to help us land the big fish in the end. Here’s what Columbus is preaching: That a worker will drive 45 miles for a good job so anything that happens within 45 miles of Van Wert is good for Van Wert.

Read that carefully with the understanding that Columbus is also encouraging regionalization and has only been successful in attracting business to Ohio’s largest metro areas or near them — the places where all of our kids are moving. Sure, they would love to help the small towns, but they know they can’t because of the demographics and workforce shortage.

The best Columbus can do is try to convince us that a win for Findlay is a win for us. But follow that line of thought to an obvious conclusion: Will the next generation stay here and drive that 45 miles too? Not a chance in hell. A win for Findlay is a win for Findlay. For us, it’s just buying time as our population continues a downward spiral.

It’s not all gloom and doom. The local economic development strife over the last few years that brought this issue to the forefront actually puts us ahead. Other communities have the same status quo issues as here — successful people who want to do things an old way because it worked for them. But times have changed. We had that fight already — everyone else will have it a few years from now when someone notices they also don’t have enough young people anymore.

We might have a deeper hole to dig out of, but we also have a blank slate. If you’re looking for someone to come and save our community, brother, that just isn’t going to happen. We are on our own and so is every other rural community. But, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand. Over the next few weeks, I’ll tell you how. Stay tuned.

POSTED: 09/05/15 at 1:28 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions