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First Lady Jill Biden visits Columbus touting new Ohio workforce hub initiative




First Lady Jill Biden addresses the Columbus’ Investing in America Workforce Hub launch highlighting commitments and initiatives led by the City of Columbus, Columbus State Community College, local employers and unions, July 12, 2023, at City Hall in downtown Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

First Lady Jill Biden visited Columbus Wednesday touting workforce efforts for the Intel fabrication facility going up in Licking County. Columbus will serve as one of five regional workforce hubs meant to train employees for in-demand jobs. The Biden administration has also tapped Phoenix, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Augusta as part of the effort.

Columbus State Community College and several local unions have committed to significant increases in students or apprentices. That employment pipeline is meant to serve the anticipated labor demands of Intel, but state officials have also predicted significant knock-on regional growth from companies supplying the new semiconductor ‘fab.’

In addition to the engineering and semiconductor commitments, local and federal officials were quick to praise CSCC’s work to boost health care training. The school is partnering with OhioHealth to double the number of students it trains in fields like nursing and medical imaging.

Middle out, bottom up

The First Lady spoke in a Columbus City Council Chambers decked out with advanced manufacturing props like a robotic arm.

U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, introduced her, and borrowing a turn of phrase from the president said the initiative will grow the economy “from the middle out and the bottom up.” Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said he was thrilled his city was chosen as workforce hub, and touted the curriculum rolling out at community colleges around Ohio to train the next generation of microchip manufacturers. Biden, herself a community college professor, argued a high school education simply isn’t enough for most people to land a career.

“But that doesn’t mean that there’s only one path to success,” she insisted.

She said industries like semiconductor manufacturing, electric vehicles and biotechnology are growing rapidly and maintaining that growth depends on skilled workers.

“So, to help with that effort, (Columbus State Community) College is working with Intel to launch a new one-year certificate program,” Biden said. “I love that.”

Columbus State President David Harrison emphasized they’re planning for the labor demands years from now — not just for Intel’s ribbon cutting.

“We’re not looking at this as the two fabs that are going into Licking County right now,” he explained. “There’s going to be eight fabs over the next decade, or more and the ecosystem of supplier is going to be transformational for every community in the state.”

Intel’s Kevin Hoggatt explained of the eventual full-time staff of 3,000, 70% will be technicians who need a 2-year degree or less. In addition to training technicians, Columbus State is also bolstering its engineering program — aiming to quadruple the number of students over five years.

Before hiring technicians, Intel will need another 7,000 workers to actually build the fabs, and that’s where local unions come in. Electricians and ironworkers have committed to expanding their apprenticeship programs. Plumbers and pipefitters, sheet metal workers, and roofers are all expanding training facilities.

Mike Knisley from the Ohio Building Trades Council stressed that the need for those workers won’t cease after construction is done at Intel.

“We’re the career pathway to the middle class,” he said. “This is not just a job. It is a generational career. It’s one where you stay in the community; you build the facilities and maintain them, and you continue through your entire career.”

The pushback

Meanwhile, critics from the right and the left of the political spectrum took the First Lady’s visit as an opportunity to raise complaints.

The conservative Americans for Prosperity-Ohio took aim at the Biden administration itself. State director Donovan O’Neil criticized the administration’s economic track record, “Ohioans have undergone enough financial turmoil to know what the Biden administration is about,” he said in a statement. However, after peaking about a year ago, the consumer price index has been on a slow, steady decline.

O’Neil argued, even if president wants to take credit for the improvements, “let’s not forget who put us there.”

In an interview, O’Neil added even if the Intel project is good for Central Ohio, that approach shouldn’t be the norm.

“Those are described as once-in-a-generation type investments, right?” he said. “What our organization would argue is we need to create economic policies that make these more than once in a generation.”

The way to do that, he contends, is a hands-off approach. As an example, O’Neil cited the current HR 1 in Congress. That measure would clear the way for more oil and gas drilling by expediting permitting, cutting fees and axing greenhouse reduction incentives.

On the other hand, left-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio argued that while Intel moving to the region is a good thing, the agreement that brought it here leaves a lot to be desired. Too much of the state’s investment to attract the company remains hidden, they argue, and there should be additional protections for the company’s future employees.

They argue an ideal agreement would include a defined minimum for pay and benefits as well as the ability to unionize. The organization also contends Intel should be a good neighbor by holding regular community meetings and taking steps to ensure it doesn’t over-burden local education, housing and infrastructure.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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