When the economy is on an upswing, it tends to become a secondary topic. Of course, it's one of our favorite topics at Westside Economic Alliance, and it was good to hear Gov. Kate Brown addressing it during her "State of the State" speech, kicking off the State Legislature's 2018 session.
Oregon has been on an economic upswing — growing in population, jobs and wages. The latest economic indicators released from the Oregon Employment Department show Washington County's unemployment is down to a record low of 3.5 percent. As we ooh and ahh over the latest economic numbers, which signal continued expansion that is almost nine years old now, it is important to note areas where the economy shows weakness. Ten percent of Washington County's population still falls under the poverty rate, as identified by the Federal Government.
The picture is growing more clear. There are people stuck in lower wage jobs who'd like to make a living wage, while businesses have a growing number of living wage jobs going unfilled. This is called a skills gap. You have the jobs, but you don't have the skilled workers to fill the jobs. Earlier this month, Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden called this a "tragedy" in his "State of the City" address. He emphasized the need to bridge this skills gap by introducing students to skills employers are looking for and to bring businesses to the table to partner in this endeavor.
In her "State of the State" address, the Governor also recognized the skills gap. She highlighted the need for a new program she called "Future Ready for Oregon" - a $300 million investment in career and technical education in the 2017-2019 state budget biennium. This program would be used for apprenticeships and rural job creation strategies. On social media the Governor posted, "I'm proud to support #CareerTechEd in Oregon. If we arm students with marketable, in-demand skills and a plan to use them, we light the path toward graduation and a good job."
After the Governor's address, WEA member and Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui commented, "PCC is working to train tomorrow's CTE high school teachers in OR, through an OCTAE/U.S. (Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education) Department of Education grant. We're working with state partners and school districts to establish pathways for these teachers to get the training and support they need."
At the national level, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici has taken a strong leadership role on this issue. In October, the Congresswoman, along with Congressman Drew Ferguson of Georgia, introduced bipartisan legislation called "Promoting Apprenticeship with Regional Training Networks for Employers Required Skills" (PARTNERS) Act of 2017. This bill would support partnerships between businesses and other local workforce stakeholders to enable employers (small and medium in size) to develop and expand work-based learning programs.
These leaders recognize how difficult and expensive it can be for small- and medium-sized businesses to develop work-based training programs or to establish an apprenticeship program on their own. When industry groups or sector partnerships form, they can be more efficient in developing approaches to training. The PARTNERS Act makes grants available of up to $500,000 for up to two years. These grants would allow businesses to coordinate a training program and deliver on it.
If we want to continue to attract and help businesses grow here in Oregon, it's becoming obvious we need to rise to the challenge and address the skills gap. One key solution can be found in apprenticeships, career and technical education programs, and through worker retraining. Workers need these programs to reach their potential with living wage jobs, and businesses of all sizes need the assurance that a skilled labor force pipeline is available. As John F. Kennedy once said, "The rising tide lifts all boats." Let's make sure we're working to lift all Oregonians.
Pamela Treece is the executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance. Her column appears monthly, addressing issues that are critical to the economic health of the Westside. Learn more about the WEA at: westsidealliance.org