Strictly Business: An endless workforce puzzle

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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If economics is the dismal science, at least those paid to engage in the field are sheltered from the gloom that is integral to their profession.

That separation isn’t available to Lisa Nisenfeld, who has spent a good deal of her career helping workers find a place in an economy that is increasingly harsh to workers. A slow economic recovery has eased the financial pain for some families, but the ever-accelerating pace of change has created a workplace that’s foreign to many who’ve been pushed to the sidelines.

“It’s like a puzzle, where the pieces change in front of your eyes,” says Nisenfeld.

Before becoming president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council two years ago, Nisenfeld led the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. In her decade there, she learned a few things about the gap between worker skills and the needs of employers. She’ll use those lessons as she heads to Oregon in October to head the state’s Employment Department.

At age 59, Nisenfeld sees a rare opportunity to help restructure government job-assistance programs, moving them away from Depression-era and Great Society origins and adapting them to today’s technology-saturated economy.

The disconnect between what employers want and what workers have to offer can seem baffling. Many employers say they can’t find skilled workers. Yet Clark County’s unemployment rate is above 9 percent, and many who want to work can’t find the path to those often well-paying jobs in manufacturing, trades and some white-collar professions.

Nisenfeld says she’d like to see more mid-career “on-ramps” back into the economy for those who have been sidelined. She cites the experience of her late husband, who needed a new path when his job as a medical manager evaporated in the mid-1990s. Jay Nisenfeld, who held a master’s degree in business, dreamed of becoming a teacher, but that would have required too much schooling and classroom training. He wound up as a teacher’s aide in special education — a rewarding job, but one with low pay.

Nisenfeld says those “on-ramps” could include more affordable schooling or concentrated curriculum for quicker retraining, workplace mentors to help workers learn new skills leading to advancement and more on-the-job training for new hires. She predicts advances in online education will provide vast possibilities for displaced workers.

But even with promising prospects to improve workforce training services, no one should expect easy times ahead. We’ve learned not to expect a social contract with an employer: Today’s jobs could disappear overseas in a moment or be handed over to machines. Wages haven’t recovered to pre-recession levels, and much recent job growth is in part-time and low-wage positions.

“A number of my friends acknowledge they do not expect their kids to have as much wealth as they did,” says Nisenfeld.

And yet, through it all, Nisenfeld’s persistence and optimism shine through. She once studied theology and had plans to become a minister. That training allows her to take the long view of the challenges that society faces.

“We are never going to fix the problem,” she says. “We keep moving toward solutions. That is the human condition.”

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.