Clark County’s construction and manufacturing sectors are facing an increasingly common problem: too many of their skilled workers are retiring out of the trades, and there aren’t enough incoming workers to fill the industries’ ranks.
That shortage has prompted many business and industry groups to step up their local outreach and recruiting efforts, and that drive was on full display Tuesday at the Youth Employment Summit in Ridgefield.
Representatives from approximately 65 local and national businesses lined five aisles of display booths in the main hall of the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. Tuesday’s fair was the third edition of the annual event, which is hosted by Workforce Southwest Washington.
“Businesses are starting to recognize that they need to have a hand in this,” said Workforce Southwest Washington communications manager Julia Maglione. “They need to have a role in connecting with young people while they’re still in high school.”
Students from high schools throughout Clark and Cowlitz counties arrived in waves through the morning, and about 600 were expected to attend by the end of the event, according to Maglione.
Workforce Southwest Washington’s biggest focus areas are construction, manufacturing, health care and technology, according to Maglione, so many of the representative companies fit into those categories – although there were plenty of other companies and agencies represented, such as Columbia Credit Union and the Transportation Security Administration.
Several of the booths included displays of equipment such as engines or construction scaffolding, or hands-on activities like a tower crane operator simulator. The Silicon Forest booth showed off the microscopes that workers use while soldering pieces onto circuit boards, and the nearby PeaceHealth table included a CPR dummy.
“We asked the companies to try to bring something hands on,” Maglione said. “When you can touch and see something, it makes a big difference.”
Legacy High School student Luis Martinez said he’d been most interested to visit the booth for the Pacific Northwest Council of Carpenters and learn about internship opportunities, because he already had some experience in that area.
Mountain View High School student Maya Pasternak said she’s considering a career in teaching or anthropology, but also enjoyed talking to representatives at the sheriff’s office booth and the parks and recreation booth to learn about lifeguard- and swim- training programs.
“It’s a different way to work with kids,” she said.
At the display booth for Columbia Machine, human resources manager Kelley Foy and other staff gave students a chance to try out an assembly test that the company uses togauge the skill level of potential new hires. Using a set of blueprints, they’re tested on their ability to build an elaborate stacking machine called a palletizer.
Heritage High School student Austin Jenkins tried out the assembly test, and said he’d been working his way around to several of the engineering-focused booths.
“I think I did really well,” he said.
One of the rows focused on entry-level jobs that students could secure immediately after high school, with booths from companies like Fred Meyer and Walgreens. At the United Natural Foods Booth, Martha Titterton explained that the company is looking for new warehouse staff at its regional headquarters in Ridgefield.
“We’re tripling our space, so we’re going through a hiring surge,” she said.
Many booths shared a common theme of career pathways, emphasizing the opportunities for new hires to come in at internships or entry-level positions and then work their way up to new specializations or into school and training programs.
The fair included representatives from colleges, but the biggest emphasis was on job opportunities for high school students who might not want to immediately enter college after graduating.
“They can see a career grow out of that first job,” Maglione said.
Columbia River High School student Rebecca Oliver said she had explored a number of booths to learn more about paid internship opportunities, including in the construction sector, and had also talked to representatives from Clark College about related opportunities.
“I’m very into environmental science and sustainability,” she said.
Behind a row of curtains at one end of the hall, groups of two or three students had the chance to sit down with human resources staff from Clark County, Kyocera and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington to run through a 10-minute mock interview and practice their skills.
Elizabeth Everling, who works at the humane society, said she’d talked to several students who hadn’t landed their first job yet and needed practice on some of the trickier questions like “tell me about yourself” or “what would you say is your greatest weakness?”
“A lot of it is verbiage,” she said. “Learning how to say something in a little more of a professional manner.”
In the street outside the convention hall, students had the chance to watch and participate in a number of construction and trades activity booths with hands-on demonstrations including masonry bricklaying and a wheelbarrow race that incorporated the kind of tasks that might be done on a job site.
Attendees could also explore the cab of a semitruck, ride up on a boom lift and drive a miniexcavator in an exercise to try to place traffic cones inside trash cans using the machines’ main lifting arms.
“It reminds me of when I got my driver’s license. I think I did OK,” said student Ashley Ramos-Gabriel. “It was super fun to try new things.”
Deken Letinich, an organizer for the Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers, explained that the goal of the outdoor activities was to show the students some common examples of trades equipment while teaching them about apprenticeship opportunities.
“The big selling point is there’s no debt,” he said, because apprenticeships are paid positions that offer training at the same time. “You don’t necessarily need to know a lot about construction — that’s the point of the apprenticeship.”
The building and construction trades are taking an increasingly proactive role in reaching out to high school students, Letinich said, because the industries are facing a worker shortage due to years of college being emphasized as the main post-high school career pathway. Many of those industries are full of older workers who have stayed on past retirement age due to the demand, he said.
“There’s a huge demand for millennials and out-of-high school kids to get in the trades,” he said.