In an era when manufacturing is perceived by many to be in steady decline, some Portland-Vancouver area employers say they have more manufacturing jobs than workers ready and willing to build their products.
That message came through at a Thursday forum held at the Red Lion Hotel at Portland’s Jantzen Beach and sponsored by a partnership of manufacturers and workforce training programs. Speakers at the 90-minute forum said that even with plenty of applicants for some manufacturing jobs, they’re finding too few who have the skills or the aptitude to work in what can be a demanding field.
The current scarcity of qualified workers is a far cry from the severe job shortage in 2008, said Ken Madden, vice president of sales and marketing at Madden Industrial Craftsmen, an industrial staffing service with an office in Vancouver. But the recovering economy revealed fundamental problems in preparing workers for manufacturing jobs, he said. An upturn in the economy can create “a crisis mode,” Madden said, adding “that is kind of where we are today.”
Said Chris Scherer, president of the nonprofit Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership: “The number one problem holding us back from growing our industry is access to skilled workers.”
More than 100 people attended the breakfast session, and most raised their hands when asked if they represented an employer. The Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership and Portland-area workforce programs, including the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council in Vancouver, sponsored the event.
Some consistent themes emerged in presentations by job-training program officials and business panelists at the session. They included: Manufacturing suffers from a poor image or is little-known as a professional option among many prospective workers; the industry has not done enough to reach out to women, veterans and unemployed people who could be a deep pool of manufacturing labor; employers need to develop more apprenticeship and training programs to attract and prepare workers for manufacturing jobs; and better coordination is needed between manufacturers and public, private, and educational training programs.
Julie Hugo, learning and development coordinator at Blount International of Milwaukie, Ore., said not enough applicants for jobs at the outdoor goods manufacturer have skills necessary for the jobs they seek.
“If you’re not showing up and getting along with your co-workers, that’s a problem,” she said.
But the cyclical nature of manufacturing employment presents a significant obstacle for those prospective workers who are seeking a financially secure future, acknowledged Lynn Stephan, a training and development manager at Microchip Technology, a major manufacturer in Gresham, Ore. In many manufacturing industries, “you put on the gas, you put on the brakes,” she said.
In a discussion of solutions, a top executive at Vancouver-based Silicon Forest Electronics urged businesses to become actively involved in grass-roots activities, including participating in partnerships with local workforce training programs, schools, and even families of employees. He cited the Vancouver-based education nonprofit nConnect, an outgrowth of industrial laser manufacturer nLight, as one example of how manufacturing industry leaders can build connections with their communities.
Scherer, of the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, said forums like the Thursday session are invaluable to those working in the field of business development. “We cannot deliver the products and services that meet your needs without your engagement,” he told the industry representatives in the audience.