Addressing the labor shortage together
At Westside Economic Alliance (WEA), our mission is to advocate for a healthy economic environment that is conducive to business growth.
One issue the region is currently facing is a labor shortage. WEA recently hosted a Breakfast Forum focusing on the labor shortage, and panelist Josh Lehner of the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis said businesses are looking to grow during this economic expansion, but the labor shortage is hampering these efforts.
The forum panel also included Joel Andersen, president of Andersen Construction; Janine Weir, coordinator of the High School Success Program, which includes career technical training for the Beaverton School District; Sylvia Kelley, executive vice president of Portland Community College; Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems, Inc.; and Jon Jensen from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48 (IBEW 48). IBEW 48 is WEA's first union member and first union to sponsor a Breakfast Forum.
One of the things WEA does well is bring together diverse opinions to collaborate on issues affecting the Westside region. This forum panel was comprehensive and diverse in nature, yet they found common ground in defining the labor shortage problem and determining possible solutions. One of the biggest takeaways from this forum was the need to improve the perception of the trades as a successful career pathway. Parents, educators, and community members need to recognize the value of career opportunities in the trades and support students exploring and seeking careers in various trades.
Frequently, students are instructed that going to college and getting a four-year degree is the only way to get ahead and to discover a fulfilling career. For many, this has translated into school loans that often turn into a burden after college graduation. In addition, there is not always a high-paying job waiting for every person with an undergraduate degree, and some find their degree doesn't lead them to a desired career. As parents, we need to rethink our personal definition of success for our children; as educators, we need to reach every student and work with them to explore all their options and not deter them from going into the trades; and as a society, we need to value those who swing a hammer just as much as we do accountants, teachers, and doctors.
Many of our adult working population are underemployed and often holding more than one job to support their families, while jobs in the trades, which pay living wages, go unfilled. The forum panel discussed the need to close the skills gap for many of our adult population, especially young adults. The average age of those going into apprentice programs for the trades is 28. To address this group and others looking to explore their options, McGough suggested the website careersnw.org as a resource. Jensen from IBEW expressed a concern to reach those between the ages of 16 - 28, saying by 28, it is obvious the trades are the second career choice. He would like to work with schools to make it a first career choice, and Andersen pointed out that all business starts with construction at its roots.
There's also an excellent video called "Considering a Career in Construction" (https://youtu.be/Z-4fHYU0jhQ). The video features Kay Sims, who was an art major, but had a hard time making a living out of college. She remembered a welding class she liked and found her way to a career as a welder. She now works for Gunderson, which makes barges and railcars along Portland's working waterfront. She refers to welding as "sewing with fire." I think many young people, especially young women, would benefit from seeing this video.
I'm proud of WEA and the work we do to promote economic vitality. We have proven that we have the ability to bring disparate groups together to discuss and address key issues affecting the business community. Solving or preventing problems starts with conversations — sometimes with groups that don't always share the same approach or agree, but by sitting down together, we can share ideas, collaborate, and work towards creating an environment that is conducive for business growth, resulting in a vibrant economy.
Mike Morey is the president of the Westside Economic Alliance Board of Directors. He works at The Standard and can be reached at: westsidealliance.org