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'Future Ready Oregon' is designed to fill the gaps in trained workers and address racial inequities in the workplace.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Help wanted signs have been showing up in rural, suburban and urban Oregon, and the Future Ready Oregon package of bills heading to the 2022 legislative session could benefit the whole state. We think the Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown have hit on a good strategy for the short legislative session that began today: focusing on three sectors of our economy most in need of skilled workers and money allocated to help fill those gaps.

Plus, a focus on addressing historical and deeply embedded inequities in the workforce that have perpetuated the cycle of poverty for underserved communities.

This seems like a recipe for success.

In even-numbered years, the Legislature only meets for 35 days. The lawmakers will gavel out on March 7, regardless of how much — or how little — they accomplish. That means finding the right blend of bipartisan bills is key.

Future Ready Oregon might well be Gov. Kate Brown's last significant policy initiative since she can't run for reelection this year. It's a $200 million plan to boost training for future jobs in construction, health care and manufacturing.

It's worth noting that worker shortages in those sectors bedevil urban, suburban and rural Oregon — blue Oregon and red Oregon — alike. So this plan could benefit the whole state.

The plan emerged from the Governor's Racial Justice Council, which Brown appointed in 2020 after the onset of the racial justice protests that arose from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The council was asked to propose ways to deal with Oregon's longstanding racial, social and economic inequities. What emerged is a plan that acknowledges the past while focusing on the future.

Democrats' plans can sometimes get labeled as "anti-business," but this one has garnered the support of the Oregon Business Council.

In short, the plan calls for a $200 million investment in state funds plus federal money from President Biden's American Rescue Plan Act. The allocation includes $92.5 million to expand existing operations such as local workforce programs — for Multnomah and Washington counties, that's Worksystems Inc.; in Clackamas County, it's the Clackamas Workforce Partnership. There also is money for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, Oregon's 17 community colleges (which have a solid track record for training welders, nurses, machinists, and so many other types of workers) and youth training. About $95 million would go to competitive grants to worker-training organizations. And $10 million is earmarked for navigation centers, which link low-income workers with support services such as emergency food, housing, child care, health care and transportation.

Another $1 million would go for coordination of the three specific economic sectors targeted in the plan: Construction, health care and manufacturing.

Gail Krumenauer, economist for the Oregon Employment Department, has outlined the state's need for trained workers. Her agency reported 107,000 job vacancies in the third quarter of 2021. That dropped, a bit, to 103,000 vacancies in the fourth quarter. The problem, she said, is the extraordinary level of hiring going on across the United States. "There are simply not enough available workers for this near-record level of job openings that employers are trying to fill," Krumenauer said, adding that, for every 10 jobs open, seven potential workers are available.

That's why this plan, going into the 2022 legislative session, is so well targeted. Its aim is to address the shortage of workers, with an extra emphasis on communities of color that have long been shut out of the work force. Disparities for minority workers existed before the pandemic, of course, but those gaps grew worse as COVID-19 rewrote the way our economies work. The governor's plan focuses like a laser on those significant disparities. And it would aid every region of Oregon, not just the Willamette Valley.

We would hope to see some attention given to women in the workplace. The pandemic has disproportionately hit women workers, many of whom left and struggle to re-enter the work force because they are forced to juggle their already-challenging roles as caregiver with the added burdens of child care and navigating the revolving doors at sometimes-open-sometimes-closed schools. The legislation should address this factor as well.

In a short session with little room for politicking, Future Ready Oregon seems like the right fix, asking the right questions, with the right goals in mind.

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