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Wanted in Ohio: Workers who can pass a drug test

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Employers across Ohio are struggling to find qualified workers to hire amid the opioid crisis, which has disproportionately affected working-class men – and compounded a shortage in skilled labor.

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Flying High, a nonprofit that helps those dealing with substance abuse get back on their feet, offers a 15-week welding training program in Youngstown, Ohio. Trainee Kennedy Stewart, who was nearing completion of her course, hones her skills April 30.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

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Bill Cruciger could easily double the staff of his roofing company, Roof Rite, given how strong the economy is right now. And 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been that hard. There was always a mason or carpenter around who could easily pick up the trade. But today, it’s nearly impossible – especially given the opioid crisis, which has disproportionately hit men without college degrees.

“It’s just mind-blowing how many people we hire who have never pounded a nail before,” says his son, Chris Cruciger, who is general manager of the family-owned company. “That’s why, when you come across someone with a lot of experience and they tell you they can’t pass a drug test, it’s so disappointing.”

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The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce says 40 to 60 percent of job applicants are failing drug tests. Once hired, some quit within weeks or even hours. State Rep. Tim Schaffer (R) of Columbus says he’s talked with HVAC contractors who, like Roof Rite, say they could double the size of their operation if they could find qualified applicants. “They are just begging for people who want to make $50,000 to $60,000 per year with a brief training program,” he says.

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Indeed, the challenge of finding qualified applicants for skilled labor jobs is a statewide phenomenon. Employers here also talk about applicants who don’t have the soft skills needed for a job interview, like writing a résumé, dressing appropriately, or making eye contact.

“This is not just one employer saying it, this is across the spectrum,” says Chris Ferruso, legislative director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in Ohio, where it has 23,000 members.

Some new initiatives are trying bridge that gap, with the goal of restoring a sense of purpose for those who have struggled with opioid addiction, while also enabling businesses to expand their reach and productivity.

Greg Blasko, one of about 15 employees at Roof Rite, uses a computer-run machine to bend metal sheeting in Boardman, Ohio, May 1. Owner Bill Cruciger says the economy is so hot that he could get enough work to double his staff, but it's been a challenge to find qualified applicants who can pass drug tests.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

The Youngstown regional Chamber recently started a new program to cover the cost of drug tests for employers. A local nonprofit, Flying High, has established a robust program of recovery and job-training for both recovering addicts and former felons, and built a network of more than a dozen employers willing to hire their trainees.

And in a bipartisan effort from Congress, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio teamed up last month with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) from next-door West Virginia to introduce the CARE Act, which would provide $100 million in grants for communities or tribes offering combined addiction recovery and job training programs – two areas that are already federally funded but administered separately. Combining the two would not cost taxpayers any more money, but would help individuals in recovery see a clearer path forward.

“We found fairly often that someone gets treatment, then can’t find a job, and struggles on the streets,” says Senator Brown in a phone interview. “If we can work on those programs together … when they are clean, they can much more likely find a job.” 

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He adds he’s willing to work across the aisle with majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who has proposed similar legislation. “We will work on this together,” he says.

Chamber offers free drug-testing for employers

Ohio has the second-highest overdose rate in the country, and the state spent more than $1 billion fighting drug abuse and addiction in 2017. But Gov. John Kasich (R) has come under fire for not investing even more, as the trajectory for opioid deaths continues to slope sharply upward. Meth is also on the rise in southern Ohio, and marijuana use is pervasive.

An October 2017 report from Ohio State University found that between 92,000 and 170,000 of Ohioans are addicted to drugs. It also cited a report that estimated that the opioid crisis had cost America $78 billion in 2013; more than half of that cost was attributed to lost productivity.

That is posing an increasing challenge for employers, particularly in trades that involve heavy machinery. Because of the safety hazards of operating such equipment while high, and because Ohio businesses can get a discount on worker compensation premiums for maintaining drug-free workplaces, many employers here require pre-hire drug tests and sometimes screenings of current employees.

Some try to skirt those tests in creative ways.

BJ Panchik of Steward Health Care/WorkMED outside Youngstown, whose office administers drug tests for local employers, has seen it all. One boss even tried to use a contraption called a Whizzinator to smuggle in someone else’s urine and pass it off as his own.

“The hardest part sometimes is keeping a straight face,” she says.“But the fact of the matter is, it’s tragic.”

Last month, the Chamber partnered with her office to provide free drug tests for potential employees through a $20,000 grant. To help them get the biggest bang for their buck, she found a kit that tests for 12 different types of drugs, many of them opiates, and provides results within minutes. It costs only $3.75 compared to $40 for the usual test, which is sent by plane to Minnesota.

“The high percentage of [drug test failures] is crushing our small companies here in the market,” says Nick Santucci, director of education and workforce development for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “We’re hoping that by covering that drug test costs, it will alleviate some of the financial burden on the companies here.”

But it’s not always that simple to match available resources with the need; Mr. Santucci says that despite advertising the free drug-testing program through various channels, including on social media, for a month they haven't had a single company use it so far. And while his data shows there are 17,875 job postings in the area, he often hears people saying there are no jobs.

April Caraway of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, for example, has many people trying to get back into the workforce but stymied by lack of a driver’s license or Social Security card, or by a felony on their record – which, even if officially expunged, can’t be erased completely due to the Internet.

“You guys keep telling me there are all these open jobs in the Valley, and I’ve got all these unemployed people – how can we get these people jobs?” she asked the Chamber. So they worked together to create a list of employers who would consider hiring felons. Anecdotally, she says, recovery house mangers are now seeing a slight improvement in men being able to land jobs.

Welders wielding dry-erase markers

Even if all job applicants could pass drug tests, employers would still have a problem, labor experts say. It stems from what many here see as an unwise decision to push young people en masse toward four-year colleges rather than channeling some into vocational programs.

“We have a long storied history of being a manufacturing powerhouse, and unfortunately so many of those skill sets that are necessary, you just can’t find in Ohio,” says Mr. Ferruso of NFIB.

Workers at Columbiana Boiler Company, many of them career welders, share their plans for how to make their operation more efficient in Columbiana, Ohio, on May 1. CEO Michael Sherwin (l.), who says he's had two open positions for two years due to the difficulty in finding qualified, drug-free applicants, offered a bonus to the team with the best idea.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

The problem is particularly striking in Youngstown, whose population has shrunk from 165,000 to about 65,000 since its flourishing steel mills shut down in the 1970s. Last summer it ranked as the most economically distressed small or mid-sized city in America – ahead of places like Flint, Mich., and Trenton, N.J. So employers are getting creative about how to do more with the employees they have – and where to look for new ones.

On a recent day at the Columbiana Boiler Company, half an hour south of Youngstown, close to a dozen career welders gathered around a glass conference room table armed with schematic drawings or dry erase markers. They are here in response to CEO Michael Sherwin’s challenge: Devise a way to reorganize the shop operations for maximum efficiency. The team with the best idea gets a cash bonus.

It’s not just an academic exercise. Mr. Sherwin, whose company pays $40,000 to $80,000 a year with benefits, says he basically hasn’t stopped looking for people for the past two years and still hasn’t been able to fill his open positions.

He’s also started looking for potential hires in unusual places – such as Flying High, the nonprofit that helps those emerging from substance abuse and/or prison get job training and reenter the workforce.

Mike Oates, a recent graduate of their welding program, gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to put in 10-hour shifts at Columbiana Boiler, where he helps make massive kettles that hold liquid zinc for galvanizing large metal objects like cellphone towers and light poles.

“He’s been a great find,” says Sherwin. For the type of welding Mr. Oates does, “He’s probably No. 2 in the shop.”

For Oates, it’s a welcome opportunity to get his life back on track.

“Just because someone makes a mistake in their life doesn’t mean they’re a criminal,” says Oates, who hurt his back working in a steel mill in the 1990s, was prescribed opioid medication, and got addicted. He was convicted of felonious assault and spent two years in prison. There, he says he underwent a major transformation and emerged a passionate Christian determined to help others. “You can’t live in your past, because you’re never going to have a future.”

In many ways, the same could be said for Ohio.