From Rust Belt to Drone Belt

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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.

Adam introduced me to Sinclair's President, Steven Johnson. Johnson, a farmer's son, has degrees in marketing and a Ph.D in education administration. He's seen a lot of things in his life, lived a lot of places, and worked a lot of jobs. Like Adam he doesn't have much faith in private unions, especially unions like the UAW that, he said, put the needs of its membership ahead of the needs of the community. Nor, he made clear, did he have much patience for people who insisted that college be purely "academic." 

"We're not Sarah Lawrence, not Wellesley," he said. "We're trying to help people get enough education to make something of themselves, people who are financially limited, academically limited, logistically limited." 

Johnson explained that the UAV training program is part of his plan not only to prepare students for 21st-century jobs, but to promote a new educational model. "For most of us, college is one of the few things you do only once -- you go when you're 18, stay until you're 22, and never go back," he said. "That model doesn't work for everyone. Sinclair is a place you can come back to for the rest of your life -- to refresh, retrain. You've heard of 'just-in-time' manufacturing? This is 'just in time' education."

Apparently the good people of the larger Dayton region agree: Johnson told me that 550,000 people -- fully half of county residents -- have taken at least one course at Sinclair. During last year's graduation ceremonies, a man stood up and claimed he'd spent 32 years getting his associate's degree, course by course -- and he said it with pride.

While visiting Sinclair, I met a number of students. Some had lost their high-paying jobs and were retraining for new ones. Others were just starting out, but seemed to have already adopted Johnson's philosophy -- they were dipping into college to pick up skills for the next job, anticipating that they'd probably return to "re-skill" in the future. They have reason for optimism: a couple of months ago, Moody's Investor Services upgraded Ohio's outlook from negative to stable, and a recent report predicts the unemployment rate -- already below the national average -- will continue to decline. Of course, the 300,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs are not coming back, nor, it seems, are a lot of well-paying jobs of any variety. The state's largest employer these days is Walmart -- with an astonishing 50,000 workers, most of them low-paid.

Still, Adam is hopeful that Dayton will continue to rise from its recent setbacks, and that Sinclair will be part of the solution. But he is less certain that GM will play a major role. Pulling away from the assembly plant's hulking remains, he recalled many a long afternoon spent on these grounds as a child, waiting with his friends for dads and moms and uncles and aunts to finish up their shifts. "It's hard to believe a guy my age would be looking at a place like this and talking about the good old days," he said, looking hard ahead. "What I'm trying to do now is everything I can to make sure what happened here never, never happens again."

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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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