From Rust Belt to Drone Belt

Out of the ashes of automotive manufacturing, Dayton, Ohio, is hoping to "re-skill" its workforce with continuing technical education. 

Adam Murka.jpgAdam Murka  holds an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Ellen Ruppel Shell).

Every company, municipality, and government agency in America would be lucky indeed to have an Adam Murka on its payroll. Adam has the memory of a savant, the work ethic of a dairy farmer, and the can-do attitude of a young man who has never experienced disappointment or despair.

Except that he has.

Adam, who is 28, lives and works in the town where he grew up: Dayton, Ohio. Last week he took me on a tour of the place, a city for which he harbors enormous hope. We saw the Oregon District, with its chic shops and coffee shops and excellent taverns. We drove past the sweeping campuses of several universities. And then we drove to Moraine to see the General Motors assembly plant.

The plant was made famous by the HBO documentary "The Last Truck." The film follows the months and weeks leading to the last day the GM plant operated, but Adam didn't have to watch that show on cable. He witnessed it first hand. His aunts, uncles and step-father all spent most of their working lives at the plant, as did most of the parents of Adam's childhood friends. Those adults who didn't work at GM were likely as not down the street at Delphi, making parts for GM. Both factories are closed and empty now, hulking behemoths the size of ghost towns. Adam told me that the people of Dayton rallied to keep out the vultures -- scrap dealers with plans to dismantle the buildings and their contents and sell it all off by the ton. The rally was successful so the carcasses remain, picked over and lifeless, a harsh reminder that high-paying union jobs are largely a thing of the past in Dayton.

Adam sees the upside to all this. Less than a decade ago, General Motors was Ohio's largest employers, with 26,000 jobs. Today no single manufacturer can begin to make that claim. The economy modernized and diversified, with 32 companies, foundations and universities that have 9,000 workers or more.

Adam thinks diversification is key to turning the city around, and he's working hard -- very hard -- to be part of that solution. He doesn't much truck in lofty rhetoric. He cut his teeth in politics, working on the staff of Republican Congressman Mike Turner in Washington, D.C. But when politics started to lose its allure, he decided to come back home. Today he's director of communications at Sinclair Community College, a remarkable institution sprawled across fifty grassy acres about a ten-minute drive from Moraine. It's there, Adam believes, where Dayton's future lies.

Sinclair has things you'd expect in a community college, like courses in dietetics and emergency response and criminal justice and hotel management and nursing. And it also has things you wouldn't expect, like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 101. The college is betting that UAVs -- commonly called "drones" -- will be in growing demand not just for military applications, but for disaster response (think fires and floods) and agricultural surveying. Adam took me to the Sinclair UAV lab and handed me one of two UAV's the college had purchased. It was pitch black, the size (though not the shape) of a coffee table, light in the hand and with the look and feel of a toy. Sinclair has invested heavily in every aspect of UAV operations -- from operating flight simulators to getting federal clearance to actually fly the things in airspace above an airport in nearby Springfield. "For every drone that goes up you need a dozen analysts on the ground to handle the data," Adam told me. "That's a lot of good jobs." Not as many as GM and Delphi provided, mind you, but at least, he said, a start.

Presented by

Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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