Youngstown, Ohio: Smart revitalization in an era of deindustrialization
By Barbara Altman
This article was originally published by the Dentons Smart Cities and Communities Think Tank in 2019.
I saw through the eyes of a child the potential impact of technology on humanity, for better or for worse. One day I read the story of John Henry to a third-grade class. At the end of the story, the powerful, proud, and industrious “steel-driving” John Henry won his race against the steampowered rock-drilling machine, but died from the stress of his effort. As I closed the book, one little boy burst into tears and remained inconsolable until I offered to help him rewrite the ending.
We did so to his satisfaction. In his version of events, the advent of the newfangled machine didn’t kill John Henry or diminish his stature, but rather provided him a healthy challenge and some relief. The proud John Henry got to live and die on his own—human—terms.
The potential impact of smart technology and smart cities and communities, both positive and negative, is limited only by our imaginations. With thoughtful leadership, these advances can help protect the planet, improve human health and well-being, and help turn around struggling cities and communities. And inclusive training opportunities can help provide access to jobs that are safer and more equitable and productive that those of the past.
Without thoughtful leadership and proper management, the very real fear exists that technology can get ahead of us and negatively impact our social fabric, livelihoods, and dignity. Taken to extreme, one only need see the latest dystopian sci-fi movie. On a more human scale, headlines, such as this one from the Boston Globe, illustrate these concerns: “Why robots, not trade, are behind so many factory job losses.”
I’m from the former steel-producing town of Youngstown, Ohio, located in Mahoning Valley (“Steel Valley”), which has experienced the impact of industrialization almost since its inception, and deindustrialization since the 1970s. According to the Ohio Steel Council, the area’s “iron and steelmaking roots go back to 1802, the same year the state was admitted to the Union.” [sic]
A once thriving region that attracted immigrants from all over the world to grueling jobs in the steel mills and a shot at the middle class, Youngstown was recently reported to have the highest unemployment rate of cities of its size in Ohio, a state that itself has unemployment rates above the national average. And that was before the devastating closures of the GM Lordstown plant, followed by Falcon Transport trucking company and other ancillary businesses.
Youngstown’s grand past and future potential survives, however, in its architecture, American art museum, playhouse, sports arenas and continuing sports prowess, symphony orchestra and performing arts venues, beautiful 2,658 acre park established in 1891, vibrant library system and popular university. It is centrally located between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the east coast and Chicago, and sits on the Mahoning River, as well as Interstate 80.
It continues to attract the interest of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and houses the highly acclaimed Youngstown Business Incubator. Its size and tight urban core contributed to its being chosen last year to receive a $10.85 million transportation grant from the federal government, potentially to include autonomous transit shuttles.
Youngstown’s diverse workforce base, many of whom are highly skilled, experienced, and laid off, should add to opportunities for commerce and innovation. Missing, however, is the kind of training that allows eligible workers to fill the jobs of the future. In order for the Youngstown area’s laid off, unemployed and underemployed workers to stay local and avoid falling prey to the area’s grim statistics on poverty, depression, suicide, violence and addiction, they need in-demand skills training that will allow the offspring of those who spent their lives working in or around the mills to have living wage jobs and prospects for professional and socio-economic growth and satisfaction.
While so many are willing to take any job, and indeed may be working two and three minimum wage jobs to gain less than they once did, smart technology provides the opportunity for jobs that can and should be better and safer than those of the past.
When my brother started his summer job as a hotballer then a slagger at US Steel, the foreman told him “after you finish this job you won’t be afraid of Hell, because it can’t be any hotter down there.”
Indeed, he performed his work wearing three layers of clothing and a helmet under an asbestos suit and hood on a walkway made of subway grating suspended 30’ above a ladle of molten steel at over 2500 degrees. The only thing guarding him from the molten steel below was a thin handrail about 3 feet above the walkway on which he worked. He said his ears rang from the heat, he chewed on salt gummies throughout his shift to avoid heatstroke, and that at the end of the day his face and hands were covered in black soot. Another brother told me that for hours after he got home each day from his summer job at an aluminum factory he would cough up black stuff from his lungs.
With the advent of smart technology, workers should not have to choose between their health and employment. Industries using new technologies can deliver goods and services, decent jobs, and sustainability. Additive manufacturing is the kind of future-looking work that is a natural fit for an industrial town like Youngstown, and has already taken hold to some degree. Indeed, a March 7 CNN article refers to Youngstown as “the Silicon Valley of 3D printing,” which should be promising, given that the industry market size has been estimated to grow from $1.5 billion in 2019 to $8.7 billion by 2027.
In addition to being an up and coming industry, additive manufacturing has the potential to help address one of our great national and global crises—that of recycling the millions of tons of plastic that are ending up in our oceans and ecosystem, even in the salt on our tables. This prospect is especially timely now that China is no longer accepting our waste for recycling.
The vital missing link between the residents in need of work, on the one hand, and future-oriented, promising job openings on the other, is similar to the one that caused a friend and me to come up with the idea of providing IT training for unemployed and underemployed DC area residents some twenty years ago. My friend, Glenn Stein, was a self-taught IT professional who found a lot of doors open to him. Short-term, high impact training could help employers find the employees they needed, and could provide access to those in need of living wage jobs.
We started with one class at a homeless shelter. Recently Glenn and I reunited with three of the six original students in the advanced cohort, all three of whom continue to work as IT professionals.
These many years later that initiative, Byte Back, continues to help hundreds of students a year gain in-demand skills, obtain Microsoft and CompTIA certifications, and launch careers. After receiving a $775K grant to scale, this year Byte Back has expanded to Baltimore. Having been a part of, and a witness to, the inspiring stories of program participants and graduates, I am motivated to create these opportunities in my hometown of Youngstown.
Good will and partnerships are at the ready. The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, with 15 area branches, has six employees ready to be trained to teach certification courses, and Glenn Stein is ready to train them. A wide array of leaders and community members in the Youngstown area, as well as the current Byte Back leadership, and former and current students, volunteers, employees, and board members have all made themselves available to support the effort.
The next step is to engage the smart city and community leadership and the business community in guiding the advanced training for eligible participants and employing our graduates. By teaming with the Youngstown workforce in need of new opportunities, the venture capitalists interested in connecting with the Midwest, and the businesses and entrepreneurs looking for trained and proven employees, we can do our part to help provide people with living wage jobs that don’t endanger their health and help a once thriving area prosper again in the era of smart cities and smart communities.
Together we can re-write the ending.
About the Author
Barbara Altman is a social entrepreneur, Spanish/English interpreter, and educator. She has served as the director of the career centers at St. John’s College and the DC Service Corps, and nonprofit programs, such as Byte Back. She currently teaches workforce development courses and advises nonprofits and start ups. To learn more, see: https://byteback.org/about/history-mission/