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Even with record low unemployment, employers and jobseekers need a lot of help getting connected.

PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Max Valdevia, 16, a lobby attendant at the Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District. The hotel has a policy of hiring youth and met him at a job fair which was put on by Worksystems Inc. The organization uses grants to pay the wages of opportunity youth who not in school or working, with a view to getting them into unsubsidized jobs with key employers later.

Finding a job for a certain sector of the population is still difficult, even with unemployment at 3.8 percent.

One target group has been dubbed Opportunity Youth. These are youth ages 16 to 24 who are not in school nor working. The nonprofit Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative (CWWC)'s 2018 Opportunity Youth Report in May found there are 30,000 opportunity youth in Portland and Southwest Washington.

The CWWC is an alliance of three nonprofits, the Clackamas Workforce Partnership, Workforce Southwest Washington (WSW) and Worksystems, which is the development board for the City of Portland, Multnomah and Washington counties.

So, while the region added nearly 71,000 jobs between 2014 and 2016, the share and number of opportunity youth over the same period in the region remained stagnant.

"Many young people in our region face persistent barriers to employment and it is imperative that we help them get on a pathway to a self-sustaining career," said Worksystems Executive Director Andrew McGough.

McGough and his team have been doing just that with the SummerWorks youth employment program and the year-round Connect2Careers jobs portal (

SummerWorks is now in its 10th year. Connect2Careers is an online system where youth can browse for real jobs posted by brand name employers, such as Nike, Daimler and Hilton, while earning digital badges to establish credentials.

COURTESY: WORKSYSTEMS INC. - Miguel Delgado (left) and David Andrade doing weed suppression at Liberty High School, by laying a mulch layer. Scott Crowell from Hillsboro Parks and Recreation was the lead supervisor of this SummerWorks work crew.

Bye bye baby boomers

Many of those youth are unskilled or their skills have stagnated. As employers cast their net even wider to replace the retiring Baby Boom generation, they are ready to take a chance on people without a diploma or any experience. However, they need some evidence that the employees will show up for work and not be a liability.

McGough told the Business Tribune last week that so far, 700 youth have been placed in the summer program. Their jobs are subsidized, meaning that the employer does not pay their wages. Those wages are paid by Worksystems, which like many such groups across the country trying to connect workers to jobs, gets its money from the Federal Government and other sources.

Many of the jobs are in the public sector, such as local government office work or outdoors with Parks & Recreation. The scheme attracted 2,600 applicants so far in 2018. There is enough money to support about 1,000 placements, according to McGough.

"We'll be around 1,000 to 1,100 in next couple of weeks," he said.

"We trained almost 40 organizations to deliver essential skills and services, and are still open to training other organizations that have an interest."

COURTESY: WORKSYSTEMS INC. - A SummerWorks participant working for the water bureau in the summer of 2016.

Opportunity knocks

While SummerWorks is not new, the organizers are trying to make the matching facility as effective as possible. The 2,600 applicants are remembered by the system and become part of what he calls "the universe of C2C."

So even if they may not have jobs that can be subsidized, they know this is a pool of people looking for work.

As of mid-July, there were 400 different jobs listed.

Most of the SummerWorks "kids" are still in high school, where they will return in the fall.

"Those who don't or can't, our goal is to connect them to grants that that offer career track training, and bridge programs."

The target sectors are healthcare, manufacturing, information technology and construction: all areas with middle-wage jobs available at the entry level.

The goal is for the youth to transition from a service job — such as fast food or driving — to a career.

"There needs to be clarity around pathways," says McGough. That means it is clear to the trainee that they can get an entry level job as a CAN1 and there is a clear pathway to becoming a CAN2.

COURTESY: IRCO - Leisle Wehmueller of IRCO helps place hundreds of people in Summerworks jobs and makes sure their paperwork is in order.

Matchmaking by IRCO

Job and career fairs are held at the end of the summer. SummerWorks participants will have something on their resume saying they completed a job with a minimum of 180 hours work experience. They may even have an evaluation by the employer.

The lion's share of the placement work has been done this summer by IRCO, the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization. The organization has been finding jobs, housing and social services for the poorest and newest immigrants for decades. (See sidebar.) IRCO takes responsibility for the employee, doing their paperwork, helping them find the job and making sure they get paid.

Employers submit an evaluation with the timesheets, checking the boxes, for example, if the employee showed up on time and was pleasant. If they're getting poor marks, career coaches can intervene.

McGough's team is pushing to expand the base of employers. "We need employers to work with us." They hired August Dao. "He brings some authenticity as a diverse, young person. Employers recognize that the workforce is changing, in terms of attitudes and the things employees need to be happy and successful."

The Connect2Careers system was pioneered by WorkSystems in San Diego and uses a software matching system developed at Cal State.

The digital badges

"We needed to take a run at a system change because we weren't at scale," says Norm Eder, executive director of the Manufacturing 21 Coalition. There were too many holes in the system, not enough connective tissue between training and education."

The SummerWorks/C2C badges include:

WRT 101 Completer. This badge signifies that a youth has successfully completed the five core essential skills competencies: Adaptability, Problem Solving, Collaboration, Communication, and Self-Awareness. All SummerWorks applicants/participants must complete this badge. They have awarded about 1250 to date.

WRT 201 Completer. This badge signifies that a youth has successfully completed the remaining five essential skills competencies: Digital Fluency, Empathy, Entrepreneurial Mindset, Resilience and Social Diversity. Currently, only youth enrolled in the year-round program are receiving instruction for this badge, about 1,200 people. So far, about 300 young people have earned the WRT 201.

SummerWorks 2017 Completer. This badge signifies that the youth successfully completed SummerWorks and is validated as work ready. Just over 1,100 have received it.

Thirty-nine organizations across the region are able to train youth to receive a badge. The digital badges are designed as proof of the most basic skills.

"These are foundational skills. Employers have said since beginning, 'We need these skills, we can do the rest.'"

They anticipate training you on how to use the cash register, but not how to respond courteously to a complaint or to show up on time. That's what we're trying to sell here, the skills that are essential to being successful on the job."

These very soft skills — showing up on time, looking and acting appropriately — are in short supply amongst the opportunity youth.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Max Valdevia lobby attendant at the Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District.


IRCO's part, with Leisl Wehmueller, workforce development manager, IRCO

How many employees have you placed?

Last year we placed over 1100 youth by the end of the summer. So far this summer, we've placed over 700 youth into internships and anticipate placing 900 youth by the end of the summer.

Are they all immigrants or refugees?

We partner with community based organizations and other service providers who refer youth from all over Multnomah County and some from Washington County to participate. Any youth that have barriers to summer employment between the ages 16-24 is able to apply.

What types of job and pay rates?

Jobs vary between grounds keepers with parks, maintenance with body shops to customer service with local businesses and office administrative to even communications and event planning assistance in the city, county, non-profit and healthcare institutions. IRCO is the employer of record and positions are subsidized pay at minimum wage rate, $12.

Why is the program being pushed right now?

We begin gearing up for matching youth to employers in SummerWorks staring in April, but June-July are our busiest months preparing all youth for employment through Work-Readiness Training and matching them to worksites. IRCO has been involved in the majority of placements contracted through Worksystems since 2013. SummerWorks has a lot of support from the mayor and city and county commissioners. I think there's a lot of interest in this program because it's proven valuable to the community over the 9 years because it provides youth with experiences and a network that may not otherwise be an option or available to all youth.

Which industries seem the most keen to hire your people?

Local retail and other businesses, non-profits, and government agencies have been some of the most supportive worksites of SummerWorks youth in the past. It's important that each worksite provide direct supervision so that our youth are supported and are learning from more established employees.

How much would you say getting a job is about who you know? (Or about who IRCO knows?)

The old saying is true, that it is all about who you know. IRCO has a long history of having excellent employer connections for our client in a wide range of jobs and these connections are essential to starting a network for the SummerWorks youth. Some youth come back every summer that they are age eligible and often return to the same worksite. From that network, they are sometimes hired-on as permanent employees.

Leisl Wehmueller, IRCO


Max Valdevia, age 16

Portland's newest hotel, Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District, opened in early July. Canopy is Hilton's boutique brand, which avoids the cookie cutter look and feel by having friendly young staff offering local recommendations for food and entertainment, and decorating the lobby with interesting books, Pendleton upholstery, and art from dealer-neighbor Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

When management were charged with trying to hire a full staff of 65 in six months, they were pointed to a job fair by Worksource. There they met Max Valdevia, 16, who has been a lobby attendant at the Canopy by Hilton for three weeks. He cleans the bathrooms and lobby and attends on guests needs when asked.

Mark Strelcheck, lead operations manager, says the vibe of the hotel is one where staff don't have to cover their tattoos and they are encouraged to recommend a food cart to guests if that's their experience.

Canopy's director of HR Kate Van Northwick and Valdevia's manager Denna Bybee "snagged" Valdevia at the job fair, his first one. He had his heart set on working in a hotel but had no leads and was not interested in retailers such as Target. Van Northwick says they spotted his passion for hospitality during a conversation and moved to have him apply. This included consulting his foster parents Eliza, who was at the job fair with him, and John.

"They said come here, and told me all about it. We talked for about 10 minutes. I did the application online." Then he had three interviews and a background check. Next was a two-hour orientation in a meeting room.

Valdevia is getting his GED right now, attending PCC Cascade in the morning and working after noon, forty hours a week. If he passes in October he will try some college classes but keep working at Canopy. "I'll keep working, I really like this job."

He says it felt hard to get a job as a 16-year-old. "You can only work in fast food and I didn't want to work in the fast food."

He has a friend who also works there in housekeeping. "Most of my friends aren't doing anything for the summer," he says.

Bybee says many in hospitality don't want the hassle of hiring 16-year-olds because they have to apply for a special business license and get parents to sign off on the background check. "We got it when we decided we wanted to hire Max. We didn't have it prior to that."

Valdevia is sure he wants to be in hotels for a long time and try many roles. "My plan is to be a manager here."

"He is going to, he is going to," says Bybee confidently. "One of the ways we rate ourselves as managers is how successful the people below us are. Our ultimate goal is we want all the people underneath us to be able to take our jobs, because we want jobs that are above us. I don't want to be in this position forever and I've made that very clear to my staff. I told all of them 'I hired all of you knowing this would not be your last stop. At 18 Max could be a director and making a salary that is more than any of his friends. In hospitality you don't need a college degree, just work your butt off, which Max is, and keep your nose clean."

Everyone at the hotel has to be ready to deal with a guest, and has to have soft skills.

"Soft skills is not something you can teach people. You can train anyone to clean a lobby."

The staff were taken to local businesses so they would have something to recommend to guests, such as Cupcake Jones, Nossa Familia and LexiDog Boutique & Social Club. "We try to get them out to explore the local area," says Bybee.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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