Labor Shortage?

Despite double-digit unemployment, some manufacturers struggle to find qualified applicants

It may sound crazy, especially during one of the worst job markets in regional memory. But according to one employment staffing company owner, at least in the region's rebounding manufacturing sector, there are more jobs than available applicants.

"Back in 2006, when unemployment here was much lower, at about 6 percent, I had no trouble finding people," said Eric Schubert, franchise owner of the Vancouver office of Express Employment Professionals, a staffing firm with about 70 Clark County manufacturing clients. "But now, I can't. It makes no sense."

Spurred by recent growth in the region's manufacturing sector, Schubert's staffing business is booming of late. As of the last week in June, Schubert said his company had 270 employees working at sites throughout Vancouver, compared to 156 at the same time last year.

And Express Employment is looking for even more people, especially for new openings in the surging manufacturing sector – positions which are proving to be exceedingly difficult to fill of late. "At first, manufacturers were blaming staffing companies for the shortage," Schubert said. "But when they started looking for themselves, they realized there was a big problem here."

In terms of finding workers to fill available manufacturing jobs, hourly wages may be an issue. For local employers such as Columbia Machine, which offers its employees what vice president of manufacturing operations Bryan Goodman called a "family-wage," finding qualified applicants has not been a problem.

"Since we started hiring a month ago, we've been successful in reaching out to employees who have worked for us in the past and have not found any other work," said Goodman, who also reported receiving plenty of outside resumes for his available positions.

But for jobs paying $9-$10 per hour, finding qualified applicants was a challenge, according to Schubert.

And in a case of unintentional employment irony, he speculated that Clark County's high rate of joblessness could be partly to blame for the worker shortage in the manufacturing sector.

Schubert pointed to the $400 average weekly unemployment benefit in Washington state, which comes close to the standard wage for unskilled manufacturing labor. "For them, it makes as much sense to stay home and collect unemployment," Schubert said. "And in terms of child care, they might even come out ahead."

According to Schubert, at least one Vancouver-area manufacturer in the high-tech sector raised its wage from $9 to $12 in the hopes of attracting more unemployed workers.

"Everyone has to look at what they can get by with and go from there," said Sheryl Hutchinson, communications director for the state Employment Security Dept. "We don't require people to take a job at a wage that isn't comparable to what they did before."

Unemployed workers receiving regular benefits are required to complete three employment search queries, anyone of which can be interchanged with attendance at a WorkSource job-hunting or training seminar. Workers receiving extended benefits must accept an offer for a job comparable to the one they held before they were laid-off, according to Hutchinson.

Schubert cited another drain on the available pool of manufacturing workers:  community colleges and trade schools, many of which have seen record enrollment since the start of the regional economic recession in early 2008.

To counter the shortage, Schubert said his firm has started training job-seekers with less than six months of assembly line experience – a requirement sought by many of his clients in the manufacturing sector.

One thing he said his clients were not doing was tapping into a pool of workers usually mentioned in the context of other economic sectors suffering from labor shortages – illegal immigrants. "A lot of the organizations here are reputable and would not put their companies in that position," he said.

Schubert referred to the case of the Portland division of Fresh Del Monte, which had its food processing plant in St. Johns raided by immigration enforcement agents on May 2, 2007, as something of a cautionary tale for other local manufacturers and distributors.

Instead, staffing firms like Express Employment are trying to bridge the worker gap by actively seeking qualified potential employees. For instance, Schubert recently attended a job fair for military veterans, hoping to recruit applicants amongst a group particularly hard hit in terms of unemployment.

"We want to help these people and get them back on their feet, but we can't find them," Schubert said. "It's frustrating."

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