Rogue Valley confronts skilled worker shortage

MedfordWorkforce0307.jpgOregon take note: There’s a tsunami building in the Rogue Valley. Across Josephine and Jackson counties, the former domain of the timber and agriculture industries, employers are looking for skilled workers to fill jobs. Looking and looking.


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MedfordWorkforce0307.jpg Nicole Palomo operates a C&C machine at Rogue Community College in White City.

Photo by Jon Meyers

Will work for workers

By Christina Williams

Oregon take note: There’s a tsunami building in the Rogue Valley.

Across Josephine and Jackson counties, the former domain of the timber and agriculture industries, employers are looking for skilled workers to fill jobs. Looking and looking.

For a variety of reasons, including a low unemployment rate and a high percentage of retirees moving into the area, Southern Oregon’s workforce is close to being tapped out, especially for higher-skilled jobs. The situation has motivated business leaders to pull together an effort to better coordinate the region’s training resources, better connect with business to find out their needs and better market job opportunities to young workers.

It’s an ambitious undertaking and something others in the state should watch. After all,  the demographic shift that will become more apparent with each baby boomer retirement will eventually spur a statewide crunch.

“No matter where you are on the workforce crisis scale, I promise you it will get worse. What every county needs is a tsunami workforce plan. Because the tsunami is coming.”

That’s how Audrey Theis put it. The Portland-based consultant is working with state officials and national groups on just this issue. She spoke on a panel at the annual Southern Oregon Business Conference earlier this year to an audience of about 300 people convened at the Rogue Valley Country Club in Medford. The evening’s topic: the workforce crisis.

Speakers one after another outlined the situation: Pretty much everyone in Southern Oregon who wants to work is working and companies that want to expand can’t find the people to fill the jobs they want to create.

The region is experiencing historically low unemployment levels — 4.9% in Jackson County at the end of 2006.

“It’s about the bottom for what we’ve seen for this region,” says Guy Tauer, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. “It’s no longer an employers’ market, which may give the impression that everyone who wants a job has one.”

Jorge Yant started feeling the pain a few years ago. When the CEO of Ashland-based health-care company Plexis started his company in 1996, unemployment in the Rogue Valley was relatively high and he had an easy time filling jobs. But a few years ago the balance shifted and the company’s technical programming jobs sat vacant. Plexis started working with a company in Vietnam and now outsources more jobs overseas (107) than it employs in Ashland (80).

“My preference would be to have the jobs here,” Yant says.

Plexis is an extreme example. Its jobs are highly technical and it’s one of the few software companies in the region. You could argue that Yant could move his company up to the Portland area and have an easier time finding local programmers — a truth that’s not lost on Yant.

“We have been committed to staying in Ashland,” he says. ”It’s my first preference. But we need to continue to consider our business and our options and what’s best for Plexis.”

It’s this kind of talk that gets economic development officials twitchy. Companies such as Plexis are basically cash importers: Their customers are far flung but they pay taxes and provide jobs locally. These traded-sector companies are the key to any economy.

“If our workforce needs are unmet, traded-sector enterprises will leave,” warns Lee Lanphier, president of the Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council and president of Lanphier Associates, a marketing firm. “They don’t need to be here.”

Working with the Job Council of Southern Oregon, the Workforce Development Board is hammering out a new system to better make the connection between workers — with a focus on those in the 18-to-29 age range — and jobs. Its proponents have dubbed the program Power Up Oregon and it involves a more proactive approach to finding out what jobs companies want to fill and finding the people to fill them.

Jim Fong, executive director of the local Job Council, figures that 30% of workers in the Rogue Valley are making $10 or less per hour. Meanwhile higher-wage jobs are sitting vacant. To Fong, who spends a lot of time thinking about how to move people out of poverty, this looks like an opportunity.

BUT THE GAP BETWEEN LOW-WAGE AND HIGH-WAGE jobs has a name: skills. The better-paying gigs require a level of training that many young workers just don’t have.

Fong estimates 70% of Southern Oregon high schoolers won’t graduate from a four-year university. But shrinking budgets have trimmed back much of the vocational training in high school, he says, and students aren’t being educated about career options. Meanwhile, people in low-wage jobs often can’t afford the time it would take to skill up for a better job.

Over at the 2-year-old Table Rock Campus of Rogue Community College, in the college’s workforce training center, the halls are quiet and the training labs are sparsely populated.

“We have the capacity, but we don’t have the students,” says Jeanne Howell, associate dean at the college.

The college is bending over backward to keep training programs going and will custom-design “fast-track” training for businesses with a particular need (recent fast-track programs have included landscaping, aluminum welding and kitchen skills). But the college has felt the same funding pinch that has plagued the rest of Oregon’s higher education institutions.

The diesel technology training program will be a casualty of funding cuts; it will stop taking new students this summer. The program is an expensive one for the college to run and demand has been low — there are 10 students in the current class, which pencils out to a $7,000-per-student cost for the college. With such low enrollment figures, the program just isn’t sustainable.

The market, however, is hungry for their skills. Most of the students will have jobs before they even finish their training.

Down the hall and around the corner is the home of the manufacturing technology training program. Kris Germana, coordinator of the program and its lead instructor, is having a quiet afternoon — even while he’s teaching 17 classes. Simultaneously.

Each term, the manufacturing department offers its full course load, regardless of how many students register. Students are then free to take the class at their own pace, coming and going from the machine training room during its open noon-til-8 hours, working with whatever instructor is available on whatever machine is open. Without the flexible structure — Germana likens it to the old one-room schoolhouses — the program, which has 35 students this term, would probably go the way of the diesel training program.

“It’s our saving grace,” says Germana. “It’s not a glamorous program so it’s low-enrollment. If you can’t get 10 people in the class, it’s a loser for the college.”

BUT THE PROGRAM HAS BEEN A WINNER for Brammo Motorsports, the Ashland-based maker of small, speedy, futuristic cars. Founder Craig Bramscher says his company has grown from seven employees to 63 in the last year and that he’s hired several workers out of RCC’s manufacturing and automotive programs.

Unlike some of the other of the region’s manufacturers, Brammo hasn’t had any trouble finding workers. “People are pretty passionate about what we do here,” Bramscher says. “People who want to work here seek us out.”

In other words, Brammo is a good draw for young workers who are looking for something cool to do with their 9-5 time.

But Lee Lanphier says the entire workforce system needs to do better at marketing jobs to workers in the 18-to-29 age range.

“It’s time we got kids excited about business again. They have this idea that business is bad,” Lanphier says. “If you don’t like it, go in and change it. Stop complaining and pouring coffee at Dutch Bros. and go somewhere where you can make a difference.”

Getting the message out will take a complicated marketing effort, something akin to how military recruiters operate: going where the young people are, building a relationship and selling them on future potential.

The workforce council will get to practice its selling skills on a pilot project for Erickson Air Crane, a Central Point employer of mechanics and engineers who work on heavy-duty helicopters. The company has agreed to come up with a list of training requirements for potential employees and will work with the council and the community college to design the appropriate curriculum — it will then commit to hiring a certain number of people who sign up for the training through an apprentice program.

“That would be a very successful program for us,” says Eric Fraenkel, vice president of plant operations. Rather than sending recruiters far and wide to find workers with the right experience, they will be able to spend their money locally. “And the people we hire would be local individuals with family ties. There’s a high chance that once they’re employed they’ll stay here.”

Erickson’s interest in potentially expanding its operation to begin building helicopters in Southern Oregon has the workforce reformers salivating. “We’re going to sell the sizzle of this,” says Lanphier.

Along with the Job Council, the Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council is asking Gov. Ted Kulongoski for $100,000 in strategic training funds to get their program working with Erickson up and running. They see it as a pilot program for the entire state.

“We’re trying to be responsive to the growing demand of the coming demographic shift,” says Jim Fong.

“We have to think fundamentally differently to create a much more coherent system than currently exists.”

Have an opinion? E-mail [email protected]

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