Finding work for a living

With G-P layoffs coming, retraining may be necessary

Last month Georgia-Pacific Paper Corp. delivered a heavy blow: 300 of the 800 employees at the Camas paper and pulp mill will be out of work by the end of next year.

The announcement did not come as a complete surprise and some say it’s a perfect illustration of the nation’s changing workforce.

The skills gap widens

As pulp and paper equipment gets more automated and requires minimal operators, the number of workers needed in the industry has declined. But requirements on those workers have continued to increase, said Lisa Nisenfeld, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council.

It used to be that mill workers could exit high school and go to work. Now, it usually requires a two-year technical degree.

Because of the constant decline in mill workers, an interesting wrinkle has appeared, said Jerry Petrick, SWWDC business and industries group manager: The people who get laid off are usually the most recently hired workers – last hired, first fired – further boosting the number of older workers who are closer to retirement.

The effect makes younger people less likely to want to go into the field, widening the skills gap even more.

"It’s psychology as much as an economic reality," he said.

Many manufacturing plants have started working to make their employees more multiskilled, which makes plants operate more efficiently but also gives employees more options for redeployment. Plus, on-the-job training that allows employees to learn skills as they use them is arguably more effective, Nisenfeld said.

"Many companies have abandoned the idea of having someone who can just operate a machine," she said. "They want someone who can fix it as well."

This planning ahead can make for solid transitions if the need arises, but sometimes skills aren’t transferable and answers aren’t so easy to come by.

Impersonal hiring process stymies placement

Robert T. Gaffney and his wife Jenny have owned a full-service vocational rehabilitation counseling firm in Vancouver for nearly 20 years. Gaffney Counseling and Consulting provides comprehensive vocational evaluation, assessment and eligibility, career counseling and planning, vocational testing, expert witness testimony, transferable skills analysis, job and worksite modification and placement assistance.

In other words, they get people back to work.

Both hold master’s degrees in counseling psychology from Gonzaga University, and Robert Gaffney serves as chair of the SWWDC.

With more than 20 years experience and almost 20 in Vancouver, Gaffney has a unique perspective on workability in Southwest Washington.

Most of his clients are injured, disabled or impaired in some way. Many are referred from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Employees Compensation Act, longshore and harbor workers programs, the federal Department of Labor, the state Department of Labor and Industries, attorneys and employers.

Most of them are unable to return to their previous employment.

"We start by trying to understand the worker," Gaffney said. "Then it’s a matter of supply and demand."

Gaffney works with clients to choose a career path that not only lines up with their personality and goals but is in demand in the marketplace. Many times, he provides a form of grief counseling to help them develop the confidence to begin selecting a new career.

Because most workers will require education and retraining, which may take years, part of Gaffney’s role is job market forecaster.

"If there are no jobs, it won’t matter how qualified a worker is," he said. "We try to predict the labor market into the future and look at trends."

He relies on publications that predict future market demands, such as Oregon Careers and Where Are You Going? and the VBJ’s Book of Lists, want ads, the WorkSource Center and phone book to identify prospective employers and educational resources.

Describing the current job market is difficult, he said. Washington’s unemployment rate is statistically low, at 4.8 percent in October, down from 5.3 percent in September, according to the state Employment Security Department. Nationally, the rate is 4.4 percent, down from 4.6 percent in September.

Over the past 20 years, some major factors have changed the work market as a whole and thus Gaffney’s job.

"It’s harder to just call somebody up and get a job placement," Gaffney explained.

The most drastic may be the introduction of the Internet. Access to information is easier, but access to a human is nearly impossible in the first stages of job hunting.

Many large companies use computers to sift through resumes and make skills-matches on the first batch of resumes. A potential hire’s resume has to get the initial nod from a computer before it’s passed to human hands.

But searching online want ads do give helpful guidelines about what employers are looking for.

Society has also changed from more industrial to more knowledge-based, Gaffney said.

"This can be really challenging," he said. "Some of my clients were educated before computers and have never been trained on a keyboard."

Nisenfeld said businesses like Gaffney’s are invaluable.

Is there a right job for everyone?

"In our business, we believe that there’s a right job for everyone. For some people, it’s harder to find the right job because certain factors have made it more challenging. Robert is really good at connecting with the right thing."

In the case of Georgia-Pacific, depending on the outcome of company negotiations, the laid-off employees may have options.

Regionally, WorkSource has a dislocated worker program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor that pays up to $5,000 of tuition and related costs to each worker who loses a job due to major downsizing and is not likely to find a job in the same field, Nisenfeld said.

The training must be for a job that has demonstrated demand. The organization will put workers through shorter programs with long-term job possibilities, such as truck driver training courses. If the worker aims to be trained for something that is higher value, such as registered nursing, WorkSource may pay more.

Georgia-Pacific also has sought out help from Trade Act programs though the Department of Labor’s Employment and Trade Administration, which assists individuals who have become unemployed as a result of increased imports from, or shifts in production to, foreign countries.

The goal of the programs is to help trade-affected workers return to suitable employment as quickly as possible.

Georgia-Pacific West’s union filed a petition for worker training dollars and was denied in 2001, according to the DOL Web site. There has not yet been a determination on the current petition.

The challenge with the potential G-P layoffs is that the highly skilled workers earn an average of $60,000 and finding comparable work for the same skills set will be difficult, Petrick said.

The good news is that the potential layoff will happen at a time when the economy is creating more opportunities, he added.

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