BY LINDA BAKER
I had expected to hear about initiatives to grow jobs and wages at yesterday’s Oregon Leadership Summit. After all, the state is facing a 9 percent unemployment rate, with 180,000 Oregonians out of work. Boosting job growth is also one of two action items in the Oregon Business Plan, which shaped the summit agenda. (The other action item is public finance reform, with a focus on budget, education, and health care).
Here’s what I didn’t expect to hear yesterday: Some employers with well-paying manufacturing and food processing jobs can’t find the mid-skill workers to fill them.
“It’s counterintuitive,” acknowledged James Fong, executive director of the Josephine County Job Council, describing hiring challenges at the summit’s southwestern region breakout session. “It’s a really weird situation,” said Oregon Employment Department administrator Graham Slater, who discussed employer struggles at another breakout session, Supporting Job Growth Through Workforce Development.
Clark Nelson, HR manager at Kraft Foods, weighed in during the food processing break out session. “Employers can’t find enough workers,” he said, adding, with a laugh: “If you’re a mechanic, I’ll trail you.”
Intel has long complained about the challenges of finding high skilled engineers in Oregon. But given the rotten unemployment rate, why is it difficult for some businesses to find machinists and forklift operators? Summit panelists offered several explanations: food processing and manufacturing are not considered “sexy” industries; vocational training is not keeping up with new technology, and rural locations lack sufficient workforce housing and population base.
Slater did sound one contrarian note. “Maybe businesses are being too picky,” he said.
Even if that’s occasionally the case, here’s the real takeaway. In Oregon, workforce development programs, the bridge between education and jobs initiatives, are getting the short shrift. Or at least that’s what several panelists suggested, noting that workforce training is often divorced from state economic development strategy and that education reform focuses more on the long term and college readiness instead of career pathways and quickly skilling up incoming workers.
To create stronger ties between specific job skills and employers, Fong and others called on the state to fund the Employer Workforce Training fund, and expand Back to Work Oregon, programs that help employers assess a worker’s career potential and offset the cost of job- tailored training.
Agnes Balassa, Executive Director of the Oregon Workforce Partnership, outlined more ambitious goals: restructuring the state’s fragmented and budget challenged workforce development system around an outcomes-based approach and “tying funding to performance.”
If that sounds familiar that’s because a streamlined, performance-based reset is just what the state is doing with health-care and education reform. Whether Oregon will tackle the realignment of yet another system remains to be seen, although Gov. John Kitzhaber just hired Balassa as policy adviser for workforce development. And if job vacancies are going unfilled in the current economic climate, integrating workforce training more explicitly with economic development strategy and education goals — well, that’s an undertaking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear about.
Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business.