Ohio Looks To Renew Tech Jobs Program

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Shannon Swift was another statistic in the downfall of Ohio's once great industrial engine, a victim of layoffs first at Delphi and then General Motors.

Swift, a 39-year-old father of five, then became one of the lucky few to find a job that took his skills from the auto plant, enhanced them, and put them toward the manufacture of strong, lightweight carbon fibers for the aerospace industry.

Swift ended up at Renegade Materials in Springsboro earlier this year after a couple of months of unemployment because of hard work, a few fortuitous personal connections, and a program that has bipartisan support from state leaders -- the $1.6 billion Ohio Third Frontier.

"It was a win-win-win," said Swift, who's $15 an hour wage is $2 less than at his previous job but has a higher ceiling. "Renegade won. I won because my family now has me in a facility that I'm learning a new trade. Unemployment won because I got off their payroll."

Gov. Ted Strickland, Senate President Bill Harris and House Speaker Armond Budish have begun talks to renew, and possibly expand, Third Frontier, which began in 2002. The program provides grants to companies that leaders believe will drive a new economy in the state: advanced energy and materials, the biomedical industry, power and propulsion.

The Third Frontier program is funded through bonds -- $500 million was approved by voters in 2005 -- general tax revenue and money from the state's settlement with tobacco companies. The program is fully funded for the next two years, but leaders want to go back to voters as early as May to make sure the program remains funded. Funding from the tobacco settlement and general revenue funding has dropped off.

The state essentially acts like a venture capital firm, though it can't take a financial stake in the companies it helps fund. The payoff comes if successful businesses are created, and more taxes are generated.

Renegade Materials has only 12 employees but sits in a 25,000 square foot building and has $3 million in sales to companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Money from Third Frontier helped Renegade in the research and development stage, as well as in the construction of the company's plant.

"What we're trying to do with the overall Third Frontier program is to move technology from wherever its origins in research were through to where it's actually in the marketplace," said John Griffin, director of Third Frontier's technology and innovation division. "What we're seeing now is the beginning of what we hope is a flood of jobs for people who have really been the backbone of Ohio's economy."

When Third Frontier was formed, the expectation was that it would create about 96,000 jobs, directly or indirectly, over the course of its 10-year life. An upcoming report from SRI International, a nonprofit research firm, will show that it has created 41,000 jobs with about 45 percent of its funds spent, Griffin said.

There is not yet opposition to any renewal or expansion of Third Frontier. Another bond measure would have to be approved by voters, and it may be more expensive for the state to borrow the money because two separate credit rating agencies downgraded its bond rating earlier this year because of the long-term trajectory of Ohio's economy.

"We now have statistics showing it has been a job generator as was initially expected and it's fulfilled its expectations and gone beyond," said Budish. "We at a minimum need to continue Third Frontier, but I personally would like to see us expand."

Swift got connected with Renegade by a work force development specialist who happened to know an executive at Renegade who was looking for workers who had skills from working in an auto plant. It's taken six months of on-the-job training for Swift to learn his new trade, but he believes he'll be well-positioned to grow as the company grows.

"It's a blessing," Swift said.

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