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As job openings abound, employers look to younger workers

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: May 13, 2018, 6:05am
6 Photos
CAM Academy freshman Sadie Brackeen, left, learns to operate an excavator at the Youth Employment Summit in April. More than 700 students could meet with 30 companies there that have many job openings in today’s growing economy. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
CAM Academy freshman Sadie Brackeen, left, learns to operate an excavator at the Youth Employment Summit in April. More than 700 students could meet with 30 companies there that have many job openings in today’s growing economy. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With a wave of construction worker retirements looming, the Southwest Washington Contractors Association took its job-recruitment plans to the drawing board.

It came back with a coloring book.

The six-page book, to be handed out at the upcoming Dozer Day, tries to charm boys and girls who might someday put on a hard hat. It tells the story of a child who falls in love with the industry and, decades later, starts a construction company.

“It’s just to create awareness that construction jobs can be fun and rewarding,” spokeswoman Andrea Smith said.

Many industries in Clark County would like to create awareness about jobs right now, as unemployment levels stay consistently low and companies say they can’t keep up with demand. Many are turning to youth to fill their ranks.

Not every industry uses the same approach, but trades especially seem to be making the most concerted efforts to recruit new, younger workers.

“The job market is really good. There’s a huge demand,” said Deken Letinich, area representative for the Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers. He added that he never misses a chance to talk at a high school.

Meanwhile, educators and economic development organizations are trying to meet demand by revving up career and technical education — what today’s parents once knew as “vocational school.”

Help wanted

The Southwest Washington Contractors Association isn’t the only one with a children’s book. Lakeside Industries, an asphalt company based in Issaquah, has one, too.

The book is not a recruiting effort, talent acquisition specialist John Hurd said. It highlights safety in construction to kids in fourth grade or younger. Hurd has handed out more than 2,000 copies.

But Lakeside is one such company actively trying to bolster its ranks. Like its peers, older workers are set to retire and the company doesn’t have a strong stable of young workers to take their place.

“We haven’t done the best job of advertising our work, especially when you look at the K-12 system,” he said.

In Clark County, workers ages 24 and younger represented roughly a quarter or more of new hires in the construction sector between 1991 and the Great Recession, according to data from the Employment Security Department. That percentage declined from 2008 onward, hitting bottom at 17.3 percent of new hires in 2012.

Firms and economic development organizations like Workforce Southwest Washington are responding by trying to bring students into the discussion.

In April, about 30 companies set up booths at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds to meet with roughly 700 high school students, as part of the second annual Youth Employment Summit. Kids talked with representatives of various industries about jobs, and could also try supervised tests of heavy construction equipment.

Hurd, who puts about 40,000 miles on his car every year to recruit a pipeline of workers, was at one point encircled by four high school girls. They wondered what kinds of skills they could learn and whether women in the construction trades earned as much as men.

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“I think it went really well,” he said afterward. While he added that he had made no new hires directly related to the event, he said those could come later.

Students who attended may have also been more prepared than recent cohorts of high-schoolers, thanks to a return for careers and technical education.

Job skills

Career and technical education — hands-on classes emphasizing career training — have been much ballyhooed in recent years. Now educators say schools are once again embracing job skills as much as college prep.

Area school districts and the Cascadia Technical Academy — formerly the Clark County Skills Center — are working with local employers to offer training that makes students more employable.

“What we’re seeing is more employers really trying to fill the pipeline of the workforce with qualified employees,” said Susan Dixon, career and technical education director for Evergreen Public Schools.

Educators have also blended the credits more. Evergreen Public Schools, for example, offers 42 CTE classes, and enables students to earn math credits while taking manufacturing classes and English credits for business communications courses.

“That gives kids more flexibility,” Dixon said.

New hires of young people are slowly ticking up, according to the Employment Security Department data, but still sits below pre-recession levels. That’s not due to a shortage of jobs, but employers are challenged in reaching teenagers and young adults, educators say.

Mark Mansell, director of Cascadia Tech Academy, said districts struggle to show students that career-oriented classes are viable. They also struggle to shake the image that they are for students who aren’t academically successful.

“Their peers thought this was somehow less than,” he said.

Hand’s-on approach

Whether the initiatives will pay off remains to be seen. Enrollment at Cascadia Tech Academy has stayed relatively flat over the past six years, increasing by about 10 full-time equivalent students to 1,060.

Cascadia students can learn far more than construction trades. There are programs for cosmetology, diesel mechanics, criminal justice and culinary arts, among others.

Erik Coppinger, an 18-year-old senior at Fort Vancouver High School, is in his second year in the aerospace program.

Participating in the class has given him a taste of college-level aerodynamics courses and electrical work, he said. This fall he plans to attend Green River Community College in Auburn, which offers multiple aerospace and aviation programs.

Coppinger said he appreciates the hands-on experience and the access to teachers who have worked in the industry.

“Here, everyone cares and everyone’s into it,” he said.

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