VAN WERT - At a meeting on Wednesday on the campus of Owens Community College in Findlay, representatives of the West Central Ohio Network - an eight-county regional economic development group consisting of Van Wert, Paulding, Mercer, Allen, Auglaize, Putnam, Hardin and Hancock counties - described how the group had become a formal organization over the past several months and been accepted as one of only 22 pilot programs within the Stronger Economies Together (SET) nationwide project. The WCON is also slated to become a sub-group within the Toledo region for the JobsOhio program, along with Wyandot County.

One of the key items to emerge from the formation was the chance to have produced a data set for the region. This is essentially a set of numbers and statistics that represent the demographics of an area. Prospective employers, especially those looking to employ larger numbers of workers, ask for this type of information as a part of their decision-making process on where to locate a new facility. 

These data sets can be used in two different ways. They can show a snapshot of an area's population attributes at one point in time or they can reveal trends. How general and how specific the data is depends upon how it was gathered. Primary source data sets can be very customized either by a geographical location, industry or any other priority that is set. This data gets down to the bare bones of who or what makes up an area. One problem with primary source sets is they are compiled by an outside company so they can be very expensive depending upon their depth and complexity. The WCON used Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. to compile the region's data set.

There are also many secondary sources of demographic information. These include government information from the Census Bureau, USDA and others. While these numbers are free for economic development directors to use, they are often best used for general overviews and trends. These are commonly used in conjunction with a primary source, as the WCON has chosen to do.

As expected, the region has lost jobs over the past five years during the economic downturn, 10,651 for a loss of about five percent of the previous positions. That mirrors Ohio's percentage lost over the same time period. The issue is that the country has a whole was statistically flat during that time, adding only 293,454 jobs, revealing the recession hit this part of the country harder than others. 

It is easy to see why when the most affected occupations are examined. Team assemblers in manufacturing facilities lost 21 percent of their positions while laborers and material movers (-11%) and truck drivers (-6%) were not far behind. These industry positions are all related to manufacturing, a part of the economy that has been decimated during the recession. In fact, direct manufacturing positions were lost at the highest rate, dropping by more than 8,000 in the region.

This data can be looked at in two ways. First, if a prospective employer is searching for an area with a ready supply of labor, the WCON region is a great place to choose. From the region's prospective, however, the area is very reliant upon manufacturing and disproportionately feels swings in the manufacturing industry, both good and bad. One bit of good news is that in the last year, manufacturing jobs in the region have been making a comeback while they have continued to fall at the state and national levels. This is an example of how economic development personnel and prospective employers use primary source data sets.

More generalized trends for the region show the three fastest growing occupations over the past five years were Healthcare Support (up 15%), Business and Financial (12%), and a tie between Life, Physical and Social Sciences, Healthcare Practitioners, and Personal Care and Service (7%). But over the same time period, the relative mix in the number of jobs has not changed:

1. Production

2. Sales and related

3. Office and Administration Support

4. Transportation

5. Management

That is where the people in the region are working, but what about them? Who makes up the region's population?

First, there are less of them with the region's population shrinking according to the reports. But the people who live in the WCON are more educated than ever before with high school dropouts falling from 22.7 percent to 12.8 percent since 1990, residents with some college increasing (+4.9%) and those earning at least a bachelor's degree also going up (+5.6%).

The poverty rate, which had been decreasing over the previous ten years, did jump back up during the recession to 10.4 percent of the population. However, those who are working are making more money. Median household income and the average wage and salary income both increased and, surprisingly with the economic conditions, bank deposits increased as well.

(To read about the formation of the West Central Ohio Network and the SET program, please read Part 1 of the series in the Thursday, July 21 edition of the Times Bulletin or go online to www.timesbulletin.com.)