Connecting youth to careers in manufacturing

With mass retirements on horizon, local groups work to increase student interest in manufacturing

Student Clark College
Courtesy of Clark College

Economic development groups have a new message for students: If you want a good paying job with a bright future, check out Clark County’s manufacturing industry.

Retirements are looming across several sectors, and officials estimate more than 30,000 workers will need to be replaced in Portland and Southwest Washington over the next decade. But so far, it’s been hard to get new students in the pipeline to replace them.

To counter that, the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Workforce Southwest Washington, the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative and other groups are launching a new campaign and website in the coming months aimed at encouraging students to investigate manufacturing careers.

“One of the key things we can do to encourage students to go into manufacturing is to demystify it,” said Workforce Southwest Washington CEO Jeanne Bennett. “Many students and their parents don’t know about the types of good-paying jobs available in manufacturing. Jobs in advanced manufacturing are technical and involve computers and clean rooms.”

As of May, Clark County had 13,400 manufacturing jobs. The biggest manufacturing segment in the county is electronics, with 3,100 jobs. There are also 1,400 jobs in fabricated materials, 1,300 jobs in food processing and 1,300 in machinery, said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

“As for the skills required, it’s a mix,” Bailey said. “More and more as things get mechanized, it’s mechanics and technicians who keep the machines running. There’s more need for people managing the process. Things have gotten much more automated.”

To address the looming need for more workers, local economic development groups created the Manufacturing Workforce Plan, which includes three major spurs: 1) Build exposure and awareness to attract youth and non-traditional candidates to manufacturing; 2) Create an industry-endorsed vetting process and develop a regional recruitment pool; 3) Address career advancement barriers of current manufacturing employees.

Skills for various sectors include knowing how to work in an electronics clean room, welding, machining, chemistry and computer skills, among others.

“In today’s manufacturing world, jobs that don’t require critical thinking are quickly falling away to automation,” said Mike Bomar, president of CREDC. “Manufacturing employers increasingly need problem solvers and individuals that can anticipate looming issues before they become a crisis. While technical specialists such as machinists and welders remain in high demand, many manufacturing jobs are now becoming more and more reliant upon technology. For these advanced manufacturing processes, it is no longer sufficient to just have traditional production skills, it is now becoming essential that skilled employees also possess some level of competency with computer and electronic systems.”

That may sound like a complex cluster of needs, but actually students can get started in the industry even without a college degree, Bennett said.

“Many manufacturing jobs do not require a four-year degree,” Bennett said. “With some short-term training after high school, young people can get jobs and work their way up.”
Clark College has a booming mechatronics program, which is helping draw more students to the field, and it will expand with new offerings to help upskill existing workers as part of the outreach plan, Bomar said.

“One new program launching this fall is the Rural Access Mechatronics Program (RAMP) at Clark College, which is a condensed version of the current mechatronics program designed to help manufacturers quickly upskill and backfill talent to meet their company needs,” Bomar said.

Other efforts include internship programs at local businesses and outreach to students in K-12 schools and through regional groups like the Southwest Washington STEM network, Bomar said.

“This includes efforts to expand work-based and career connected learning opportunities as well as better messaging and outreach to parents, teachers, and counselors to better communicate the realities of what modern manufacturing entails,” Bomar said. “Much of the work that CREDC does on this front involves serving as a connector between the 100 traded sector businesses we visit each year and our K-20 partners to help facilitate alignment between local industry needs and programming at the secondary and post-secondary levels.”

Locally, SEH America, WaferTech, Columbia Machine and Karcher are all offering virtual or onsite internship opportunities as part of the outreach plan, he added.

There’s also a need for workers to develop more “soft skills” like resume writing, interviewing and communications, Bennett said.

“Companies in manufacturing and other industries are telling us the candidates they are interviewing lack soft skills, such as professionalism, work ethic, problem solving abilities, and good oral and written communications skills,” Bennett said.

Jobs in the sector typically pay more than non-skilled jobs, as well. Industrial machinery mechanics have a median wage of $26 an hour, electronics assembly workers make about $16 an hour and general assembly workers make about $13 an hour in Clark County, Bailey said.

In part, the need for new workers is being driven by the long-awaited mass-retirements of the baby boomer generation. Members of that generation were expected to start retiring about 10 years ago, but the Great Recession led many to stay in the workforce, Bailey said.

“We’re looking at a lot of retirements coming up,” Bailey said. “I know I said that 10 years ago, but the landscape has changed quite a bit. We’ve recovered from the recession about as much as we’re going to.”

That spate of retirements is starting to happen nationally as well, Bomar said.

“Nationally, manufacturers are anticipating the need to fill millions of jobs over the next decade as baby boomers reach retirement age, but are finding declining interest in these careers among the emerging workforce,” he said. “Locally, we have certainly heard this scenario echoed by regional employers concerned with attracting qualified workers.”

That said, if the effort to draw more students into the pipeline is successful, bumping up the local workforce could help economic development officials draw even more high wage skilled jobs and high tech companies to the area, Bomar said.

“Talent drives everything,” Bomar said. “Both a healthy supply of new graduates, along with a strong talent base and a robust cluster of manufacturers in an area is a key consideration for new and expanded business investment.”

Get connected:

Companies interested in initiating a youth pipeline of talent in their business, can receive assistance and possibly training funds and supplemental wages for youth through Workforce Southwest Washington by contacting Youth Initiatives Manager Miriam Martin at or 360.567.3183.

Students can learn about Southwest Washington businesses by visiting Company profiles contain descriptions, locations, career opportunities and more. Students can also connect to internships, work-based learning activities, mock interviews, company tours, informational interviews, job shadows and worksite learning experiences.

Upcoming events:

October 4: Manufacturing Day in Southwest Washington. Workforce SW and its partners are planning manufacturing exposure and awareness events to bring students and companies together to help demystify manufacturing. Companies wanting to learn more should contact Senior Industry Initiatives Manager Cass Parker at or 360.567.1076.

Feb. 2018: 2nd Annual Youth Employment Summit. The inaugural Youth Employment Summit was held last May and drew more than 50 companies and 200 students. The teens participated in hands-on activities led by local companies to learn about industries, career pathways and required skills so they could make decisions about their future education and careers. In the afternoon, the teens had the option of applying for summer jobs or participating in mock interviews. Several students were hired on the spot for jobs at the Clark County Fair, Macy’s, Fred Meyer and Wendy’s. Schools will have more information available for students when school begins again in fall.

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