SPECIAL REPORT: The Great Reset

Despite national and even global trends that suggest the availability of middle-class jobs is diminishing, many area officials believe the Mid-Ohio Valley has and will continue to be a viable place for steady, well-paying jobs.

“We’re kind of an aberration I’m thinking, Washington County. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state,” said Terry Tamburini, executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority.

In December, Washington County logged an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, not quite as good as the state average of 6.8 percent; however, Washington County is fairing much better than neighboring Morgan (11.1 percent), Noble (9.7 percent), and Monroe (10.1 percent) counties.

Employers planning to hire students directly out of college is estimated to increase 13 percent this year, said Hilles Hughes, director of the Marietta College Career Center.

“I think the economy has gotten better based on the context I’m working with. Certainly it is better than it was in 2008, 2009,” said Hughes, who mainly works on job placement with traditional college students.

A declining unemployment rate falls in line with the national trend. What sets the region apart, said Tamburini, is the quality of the job openings.

Nationally, nearly three quarters of new job growth is in areas considered low-paying, with salaries under $37,000, according to The Associated Press.

Locally, the steady march of Marcellus shale drilling has resulted in desirable positions not only inside the oil and gas industry, but in peripheral industries as well, said Tamburini.

Many of those jobs are middle class positions, or better.

For example, Mike Elliot, secondary director of the Washington County Career Center, said welders that help piece together pipelines for the industry are in high demand.

The school’s welding program is placing the most students directly into “first placement” programs, which allow students to get class credit for paid work in their field, he said.

“We’re all kind of waiting for this gas boom to take off. And if you can weld, you can certainly be employed, and the wages are there,” said Elliot.

Many welders, with overtime, can earn a six-figure salary, placing them beyond middle class, he said.

The loss of many of the middle class jobs has been attributed to technological advances, replacing or at least lessening the need for human work.

And even outside of the oil and gas industry, the career center is preparing students for middle class jobs that show no signs of slowing down, he said.

Another booming program at the school is health information technology, which trains students in billing, medical records, insurance, electronic filing and more.

The Memorial Health System, which encompasses two local hospitals and several other health care facilities, has experienced exponential employment growth over the past five to 10 years, said Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the system.

About a third of the system’s jobs fall into the middle class category, defined as $37,000 to $68,000 in wages.

According to The Associated Press, the loss of many middle class jobs has been directly related to advancements in technology, either lessening or completely doing away with the need for human workers.

But there are certain human actions that technology can never replace, and kneeling by the bed of a sick patient, giving comfort and care is one of them, said Tricia Engfehr, director of human resources for the Memorial Health System.

“We don’t believe that technology can deliver the care,” said Engfehr.

From the hospital’s perspective, the increase in technology has increased the need for people, not decreased it, she added.

“At the end of the day, you still need people to develop the technology and know how to use it on a day to day basis,” said Offenberger.

But while jobs, and good paying ones, may still be readily available in this area, people need to be ready to step up to the plate, said Elliot.

The career center’s health information system program evolved from what was once the secretarial school, and that evolution has meant a broader scope of learning for the students, he said.

“You’re having to do more than just answer the phone or make an appointment. That person is required to do more in different areas,” said Elliot.

At Washington-Morgan Community Action, director of employment and training, Kathy Gramkow, has noticed that more skills are now needed to find well-paying jobs.

“The days of just going around and putting in applications, that’s not a job search anymore. Now they do personality assessments, team work assessments, skill assessments,” noted Gramkow.

While those mid-pay jobs that are disappearing nationally are still available locally, applicants that fail to keep up with the technology now infiltrating so many career fields will be the ones who have a hard time getting into those jobs, she said.