What's the Oregon legislative focus this year? Job training.
What may be Kate Brown's last policy initiative as governor — a $200 million plan to boost training for future jobs in construction, health care and manufacturing — will be one of the top items for the new session of the Oregon Legislature.
Lawmakers will open the 35-day session on Feb. 1 as Oregon's top political leadership undergoes major changes. It will be the final scheduled session for Brown, a Democrat who is barred by term limits from running again, and for Peter Courtney, the veteran Democrat from Salem who has led the Senate as its president for a record two decades. He is retiring after a record 38 years as a legislator.
This session will be new for Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Democrat from Corvallis who has been nominated to succeed Tina Kotek of Portland after her record nine years as House speaker. Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend and Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville led minority Republicans for the first time during the Dec. 13 special session. For Democratic Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene, it will be her first session as majority leader.
Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego assumed his position in mid-2020.
A record 11 members, some not yet chosen, will occupy seats they did not hold at the start of the 2021 session a year ago.
Given how contentious recent sessions have been from walkouts and slowdowns of minority Republicans in the past three years — and five special sessions, four of them prompted by the continuing coronavirus pandemic — the training plan may represent something that can win bipartisan approval.
The Future Ready Oregon plan emerged from the Governor's Racial Justice Council, which Brown appointed in 2020 after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice protests that arose from the murder of George Floyd by a now-former Minneapolis police officer. While some work focused on the current two-year state budget, the council also was asked to propose ways to deal with longstanding racial, social and economic inequities in Oregon.
The plan is aimed not only at past injustices but future shortages of trained workers, estimated at 300,000, in three growing economic sectors.
"Let's be clear: COVID did not create these workforce challenges. They were created pre-pandemic. COVID exposed them," said Patsy Richards, who led the council task force that shaped the plan.
Richards, who is Black, said the plan takes into account the need for full participation in Oregon's workforce by racial and ethnic minorities, and also by women, young workers, military veterans and former inmates in jails and prisons.
"If we do not respond to these workforce indicators, we will miss the opportunity to lead the next generation of Oregonians to economic prosperity for all," said Richards, who is the director of long-term Care Works for the RISE Partnership in Portland.
Brown previewed the plan at the annual Oregon Business Plan conference on Dec. 6. One of the conference sponsors is the Oregon Business Council, which a decade ago set a goal of a 10% statewide poverty rate by 2020. Oregon's actual rate in 2021 was 12.44%, slightly less than the national average of 13.4%.
Duncan Wyse is the longtime president of the Oregon Business Council.
"We have immediate needs," he said. "Employers need talent right now, and there are a lot of Oregonians who are looking for new careers as they've gone through the pandemic. (This program) really is trying to reimagine how we provide education and training services to adults."
What the plan does
The plan will draw $200 million from the state's tax-supported general fund and federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan that Congress passed almost a year ago.
Major spending categories are:
• $92.5 million to expand existing programs. Among them: $35 million for local workforce programs (Multnomah and Washington counties are covered by Worksystems Inc., and Clackamas County by the Clackamas Workforce Partnership); $20 million for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs; $17 million for Oregon's 17 community colleges, and $10.5 million for youth training.
• $95 million for competitive grants to organizations.
• $10 million for navigation centers, which link workers with support services (emergency food, housing, child care, health care, transportation) to keep them employed.
• $1 million for coordination of the three specific economic sectors targeted in the plan: Construction, health care and manufacturing.
Though Oregon has regained many of the jobs lost during the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, "these are aimed at ensuring that Oregon's recovery is equitable," said Jennifer Purcell, Brown's workforce policy adviser.
"The disruption created by the pandemic has exacerbated the workforce crisis, as well as highlighted significant disparities in how our workforce system serves Oregon's communities of color," which Purcell said have been affected to a greater extent than Oregon as a whole. "Barriers to job readiness and career advancement persist, which is made more difficult by a workforce system that is often siloed, inefficient, and difficult to navigate."
Legislative committees got a more detailed look at the plan during meetings Jan. 11. The plan has its doubters.
"I am concerned about selecting winners and losers" among job sectors, said Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie and a longtime labor official who is leaving the Legislature after 18 years.
Rep. Jami Cate, a Republican from Lebanon and a farmer, questioned how much the plan would help in rural areas.
"Given that we have a shortage of workers already, in some cases we are going to be enticing them to quit," said Rep. John Lively, a Democrat from Springfield and chairman of the House committee that heard the plan. "There are complex issues that are going to be part of this conversation we need to have in this session."
Unfilled job openings
Gail Krumenauer, economist for the Oregon Employment Department, spoke briefly to the House committee. In a Jan. 19 conference call with reporters, she touched on why there are shortages now.
The agency reported 103,000 job vacancies in the private sector in the final quarter of 2021 — down from a record 107,000 in the previous quarter — and that employers said 76% were considered hard to fill. (The previous record was 67,000 jobs in summer 2017.)
"We are seeing this extraordinary level of hiring across the United States," Krumenauer said. "There are simply not enough available workers for this near-record level of job openings that employers are trying to fill."
For every 10 jobs open, she said, seven workers are potentially available. Average starting pay in the last quarter of 2021 was $21 per hour, a 14% increase over the previous year, even taking inflation into account.
"There is not one thing that can magically be done to help all the workers find jobs with employers to supply all the workers they need," David Gerstenfeld, the acting director of the Employment Department, told reporters.
"Some people do not recognize they have transferable skills," he said. "We can help them fill a gap so they can move into some of those high-demand occupations."
Plan targets sectors
Krumenauer said each of five sectors accounted for at least 10,000 job openings — and construction, health care and manufacturing were three of them, the very ones targeted by the plan. The others were retail trade, and leisure and hospitality, which covers hotels, restaurants and bars.
"Oregon's health care sector has had the largest need for workers from at least 2013," when the agency began its quarterly survey of job vacancies. "It has been a larger and growing sector, and the (aging) demographics of this state really show we are likely to need more health-care workers. What the pandemic has done is intensify and reveal labor shortages."
She said such jobs as home health and personal care workers and nurse practitioners — the most in demand — are more likely than other jobs to require credentials or training beyond high school.
She said the continuing pandemic has also prompted many health-care workers to quit altogether or take less demanding jobs in other fields.
For workforces in construction and manufacturing, she said, they share one common issue: Retirees are not being replaced by younger workers with the necessary skills.
"We see a lot of replacement openings into the future," she said, noting that Oregon will need 5,000 more workers in manufacturing by 2030.
As for construction, Krumenauer said the demand for housing — which failed to keep pace with population growth during the past decade — and other projects will keep that sector busy. She said Oregon construction employment is up 61% from a decade ago, and is at its peak.
"The difficulty there is similar to what we saw beforehand," she said. "It's difficult to find workers in construction simply because it's more likely to require prior experience. That makes sense in some instances, such as operating heavy equipment."
Changes since 2020
The 2022 session of the Oregon Legislature will open with a record 11 members, some not yet appointed, who were not seated when the 2021 session began.
They are, by chamber and chronological order:
• Akasha Lawrence Spence, a Democrat from Portland, District 18 on Dec. 4. She succeeded Ginny Burdick of Portland, who resigned Nov. 1 after 25 years to accept a state appointment. Lawrence Spence also was an appointee in the House in 2020.
• Rachel Armitage, a Democrat from Warren, District 16 on Jan. 21. She succeeded Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, who resigned Dec. 16 after 21 years in the Legislature to focus on her independent bid for governor.
• Janeen Sollman, a Democrat from Hillsboro, District 15 on Jan. 21. She succeeded Chuck Riley of Hillsboro, who resigned Jan. 1 after 13 years in the Legislature. Sollman was in her third term in the House, and her seat will have to be filled. (See below)
• Andrea Valderrama, a Democrat from Portland, District 47 on April 1, 2021. She succeeded Diego Hernandez of Portland, who resigned March 15 in his third term. He did so before a House vote on his expulsion, based on multiple violations of a rule against sexual harassment.
• Anna Scharf, a Republican from Amity, District 23 on July 6. She succeeded Mike Nearman of Polk County, who the House expelled June 10 in connection with his allowing anti-lockdown demonstrators — some of them armed — to enter a closed Capitol during a 2020 special session. He was in his fourth term.
• Christine Goodwin, a Republican from Roseburg, District 2 on Aug. 27. She succeeded Gary Leif of Roseburg, who died of cancer July 22 while in his second term.
• Chris Hoy, a Democrat from Salem, District 21 on Dec. 10. He succeeded Brian Clem of Salem, who resigned Dec. 1 after 15 years in the House.
• Jessica George, a Republican from Keizer, District 25 on Dec. 13. She succeeded Bill Post of Keizer, who resigned Nov. 30 after seven years upon moving to Nevada.
• Pending: A Democrat to succeed Tina Kotek of Portland, District 44, who resigned Jan. 22 after 15 years to focus on her bid for governor in the May 17 primary.
• Pending: A Republican to succeed Christine Drazan of Canby, District 39, who will resign Jan. 31 after three years to focus on her bid for governor in the May 17 primary.
• Pending: A Democrat to succeed Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro, District 30, who was appointed to the Senate. She had been in the House five years.
— Peter Wong
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