High employment has Clark County businesses scouring for workers

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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While talking about hiring in Clark County, a WaferTech official mentioned its online job board where a handful of entry-level positions have been affixed for some time.

It’s not because people aren’t applying. The Camas-based semiconductor manufacturer employs close to 1,000 people and is hungry for more workers. But so is everyone else.

“This has been the most competitive (hiring) we’ve seen in the last 15 years,” said John Megli, the human resources director for the company. “It’s not that we’re not finding interested people. It’s more that there’s so much choice people have that they can consider more options.”

Companies across Clark County, in various industries, say they are facing a shortage of skilled labor. With the economy in full boom and the unemployment rate its lowest since 2000, firms say they are growing more slowly and the costs of labor are expanding.

Many sectors are in this boat, said Jeanne Bennett, who heads up Workforce Southwest, a nonprofit organization that helps companies find employees. The organization puts a priority on higher-paying sectors, such as manufacturing and construction, but she said the demand is evident in retail, hospitality and more.

“We’re hearing it from all of them in some way or another,” Bennett said.

Worker migration

When construction contractors talk about labor shortage, Bennett said, they are usually talking about employees with skills above the entry level. They are jobs that don’t require college degrees, but the workers are usually certified and well-trained.

Ross Tapani, vice president of Tapani Plumbing in Battle Ground, said the company and its peers in the industry are vying for experienced plumbers. The best ones, he said, have years of experience.

“All the skills trades, (hiring) is really tough,” said Tapani, who has been with the company since 1993.

There are numerous factors at play. Some people, like Tapani, chalk it up to the retirement of baby boomers, who once dominated the trades. Others say the recession sent a lot of would-be apprentices into other sectors, like computer programming.

“When there was so many construction-related businesses in the county that down-scaled their workforce, (ex-employees) had to go somewhere,” said Cornell Rotschy, a co-owner of Rotschy Inc., which is among the busiest builders in the county.

The state Employment Security Department, which tracks jobs across every industry, doesn’t specifically track employees jumping to other industries.

But these companies say business is still going well. For Tapani Plumbing, all those large apartment complexes rising in Portland have kept their plumbers busy. And while they aren’t aiming for rapid expansion, the company has had to turn down a lot of work lately.

“Because of this manpower shortage, you have to know when to say no,” Tapani said. “We can’t do all the work, even if we’d love to and if it’s right down the street. We physically can’t do it.”

Those feelings were echoed by other companies. They stress that they aren’t too short-handed meet their current commitments, but they would hire more workers if the pool they draw from was deep enough.

Tapani Inc., a separate company from the plumbing outfit, employs 425 people and has grown by at least 15 percent in revenues for the past five years, according to Chief Financial Officer Kevin Tapani. He said the general contracting firm is turning down more work, but labor isn’t the biggest constraint.

“We don’t feel our ability to hire is stymieing our ability to grow,” Kevin Tapani said. “We think our ability to grow is limited by our experience, our cash, and our equipment. We’re growing as fast as we want to grow.”

Skills to pay bills

The developing labor shortage is good news for workers and their wallets, according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department.

“It’s basic supply and demand,” he said. “If you’re an employer looking for people, raising your wages is a signal to draw more applicants.”

According to Dennis Kampe, the executive director of the Cascadia Tech Center, students who graduate from the center have a lot more bargaining power than in the past.

The school trains high school students in trades including construction, aerospace and auto-making, and said companies are fighting for graduates that come out of one of their 15 programs.

“Wages had been pretty stagnant since 2008 or 2009. I think we’re seeing them increase now as employers raise the wage to entice them to come and work,” he said. “Because now, they come and work against each other.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show wages have increased for many sectors, including construction, production, health care and computer technologies, but it only bores down as far as the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area.

Kevin Tapani said his contracting firm has raised wages across the board, with employees in all sorts of varied jobs, from paving to bridgework to electricians.

“The pressure to keep good, qualified guys costs more benefits and more wage. You want to keep them and to not be looking around,” he said.

Not every strategy comes down to raising wages. Megli said WaferTech has had enough potential employees decide to go into construction that they have started speeding up their hiring process. They hope to give applicants less time to find other suitors.

“The competition is very strong and we have to be faster with our systems,” he said. “We have an interview process where we do multiple rounds of interviews, (and we say) let’s look at doing those the same day, so we can be more accountable with our time and the candidates’ time, and make those decisions faster.”

Cooperation

A few firms have come together to try to foster more workers for the benefit of the industry.

Rotschy, Nutter Corporation and Tapani all helped fund a pilot program with Clark College and Workforce Southwest Washington to train construction workers. The companies are reviewing how the program went, but according to workforce spokeswoman Julia Maglione, 12 out of the 13 students who enrolled were able to graduate and were hired.

“It’s great for the employers because they’re getting employees trained to their specifications and they get first right of refusal on those employees,” Bennett said.

Kevin Tapani said that more outreach like that is going to have to occur in the future if they’re going to build up that pool.

“I think a lot of people have the perception you have to go into computers or nursing or go to medical school to have a career,” he said. “We’re trying to show them, ‘No, you can have a good healthy career, you can have a 401(k) and you can raise a family working at Tapani.'”