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Editor's Notes: Scenes from a workforce

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Robin Doussard
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Snippets of dialogue from my screenplay for a coming-of-age film I'm calling The Community College Graduate:

Businessman: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Disaffected graduate: Yes, sir.

Businessman: Are you listening?
Disaffected graduate: Yes, I am.
Businessman: Welding.

With apologies to Dustin Hoffman and that other iconic coming-of-age movie, The Graduate, it’s obvious that plastics is no longer the killer career answer it once was. This brilliance came to me after I recently had coffee with Dana Haynes, a spokesman for Portland Community College. I first met Dana three years ago when he was the only non-female invited to a leadership conference for young women. Three years later, he continues to be the only non-female invited, which I think speaks well of his inner qualities. He’s also a former journalist and full of enthusiasm and great tips about what his college is doing. Like welding.

To get an overview of what the whole community college system was experiencing, I checked in with Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, who said the enrollment growth at Oregon’s 17 community colleges that started last year shows no sign of easing up as summer turns into fall. As the recession rolls on, Oregonians are enrolling in record numbers.

There’s a direct correlation between more people losing their jobs and more students showing up at the colleges, says Henderson. Average enrollment at the 17 colleges is up 11.8%, or the equivalent of about 40,000 new Oregonians signing up for classes.

Tellingly, Central Oregon Community College is leading the pack; it saw a 34% increase in enrollment during the spring term this year. (The school had to close enrollment because it maxed out; the first time Henderson says she’s ever seen that happen anywhere.) Bend also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The two biggest groups signing up is the high school graduate looking for a less expensive alternative to a four-year school, and the laid-off older work, says Henderson.

If the popular classes at community colleges are predictors, the hot jobs will be anything health related, green tech work (such as wind technicians), auto technology, and then Henderson singled out welding and added that welding students currently are hired before they even finish their program.

Which brings me back to PCC’s welding program. PCC recently launched a new partnership for training welders with Vigor Industrial, a Portland-based company that builds and repairs marine vessels that we featured in Oregon Business last year as one of Oregon’s top private companies. The title to that story was "Oregon’s top private companies learn to adapt” and Vigor CEO Frank Foti was the lead.

"The market for ship repair changed, and we had to adjust,” Foti told Ben Jacklet, the writer on the story. "Selling the dry dock gave us an opportunity to regroup and to find a profitable niche. We are now back to the sales levels we had before, except we have gotten there profitably, and we have substantially reinvested our profits to build more infrastructure and develop new businesses.”

That adapt-or-die strategy is clearly paying off for Vigor, for PCC and for students, whether they are right out of high school or old dogs looking for new tricks.

Until May when PCC and Vigor jointly opened the Swan Island Training Center, PCC offered welding only at its Rock Creek Campus, where there’s a waiting list of up to 90 students at any time. Now the training center offers evening welding classes for up to 20 students. U.S. Barge, a company co-founded by Vigor and Oregon Iron Works, sponsored the first five students and the PCC Foundation will offer a one-year scholarship to one student.

Henderson says 50% of the jobs now and in the future will be "middle-skills” jobs like welding. "The jobs aren’t going to be the same when the recovery comes,” says Henderson.

That’s the title of my next screenplay: When the Recovery Comes. It’s about a group of Oregon economists who all take turns repeatedly guessing when the recession will end. It’s a murder mystery.

Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business.

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