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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everyone has been asked a version of this question. The Fairfield County Workforce Center not only helps students find the answer, but it gives them the tools and training to find a job in an in-demand field in the county.

Szabrak gives a tour of the labs at the Fairfield County Workforce Center

The Workforce Center opened in 2021 as a means to manage the county’s workforce shortage. Businesses were in critical need of skilled labor, especially in three of the largest employer segments: manufacturing, construction and healthcare.

“Individuals that sought out training programs to start a new career or advance their careers had few options in Fairfield County. The shortest program was nine months and most programs were two years. For individuals that were unemployed or underemployed, that’s a big commitment,” said Rick Szabrak, director of Economic and Workforce Development for Fairfield County. “We wanted to make sure we had programs that could train people for in-demand jobs but in a timeframe that was realistic for people in transition. There was also a need for school districts to have pre-apprenticeship programs for students that needed assistance to meet the new graduation requirements. These short-term programs could also meet the needs for the schools.”

The 72,000-square-foot building, previously used by the Fairfield County Board of Developmental Disabilities, was no longer needed, and the board allowed the Fairfield County Commissioners to use it as a workforce center. Fairfield County Economic and Workforce Development found partners in Hocking College and Ohio University to offer training programs in manufacturing, construction and healthcare that also served local employers.

“Instead of just being an education provider, we wanted this to be a place where we developed a local workforce,” Szabrak said. “That meant finding partners that were eager to look at training a little differently. We wanted to have a place where individuals could get training, start a career, and come back to get new skills throughout the life cycle of their career. We want to elevate the level of education amongst our residents, and these programs can lead to college degrees.”

Workforce students applying manufacturing skills

The Fairfield County commissioners, Hocking College, and Ohio University worked with Gov. Mike DeWine and the legislature to get $1.25 million in the biennial budget to support this initiative. The funds were used to purchase equipment for the programs that could be shared amongst the providers. If Hocking College buys a robot, for example, Ohio University could use that for its training.

“We provide the space, promotion and support to education providers at no cost as long as they’re meeting the needs of our local employer,” Szabrak said. “The county has the final say in the programming that is provided at the center. While education institutions are challenged with preparing students for the world, we want to prepare students for Fairfield County.”

The center also partnered with local schools to complement their programming and meet the needs for their students. To do so, the workforce center launched a steering committee that includes educators, workforce entities and municipalities. Fairfield County’s Economic and Workforce Development office’s career navigators support students with resume writing, applying for jobs and getting ready for their careers.

The center recently worked with Pickerington Schools to create a place for students who need career guidance. To help provide some direction, the center hosted Discovery Days, where 35 students learned a little bit about each career field at the center. Szabrak mentioned one student who told him that he didn’t realize he liked to build things.

“He never had those opportunities. For him, school was going and sitting in a classroom, listening to someone and taking tests. That wasn’t for him,” Szabrak said. “What this did was give him an opportunity to shine a little. They made picnic tables, and he was so proud and excited about that.”

Szabrak said that out of those 35 students, 25 regularly attended multiple classes at the Workforce Center. Twenty of those students came back in the spring for a full-time program at the Center to get a certificate or pre-apprenticeship. The center currently has 160 participants: 70 students and 90 apprentices.

Students take a break on picnic tables they constructed.

“We create pre-apprenticeship programs. The students come in, do training one week, then the next week is on the job training. [They start] to get a taste of what a good paycheck can look like if you do this career,” Szabrak said. “Because of that, Lancaster schools started sending their career tech students up here. They wanted students to focus on specific area in their final semester and they loved the pre-apprenticeship program.”

Looking to the future, Szabrak says a top priority is making the Engineering-Technology program state of the art, which will involve moving the program from Ohio University Lancaster’s campus to the workforce center and building it out. The center will also offer CDL classes and expand healthcare offerings to include STNA and respiratory therapy.

For any county looking to address their workforce issues, Szabrak has some advice:

“Identify what the problem is you are trying to solve. Find partners that are as passionate about your vision as you are and are willing to play the long game on this. Workforce programming doesn’t bring immediate dividends to the education providers, but it can bring immediate dividends to the employers,” he said, “Do you have the right programs for your employers and those seeking training for employment? Or are there already enough programs but just not enough capacity in those programs to serve everyone? Do you have someone that will lead the efforts?”

Szabrak also encourages anyone interested in the facility to schedule time to visit.

“We love to give tours and tell our story. The ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’ when it comes to what we’re doing at the Workforce Center,” he said. “It’s truly unique and we’re proud of all of the partners that have come together to make this happen.”

Story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of County Leader.