Regional solutions for regional workforce challenges

Workforce improvements driven by collaboration among regional workforce boards, economic development councils, educators & industry

Aerial view of Vancouver

From new certification programs and industry-specific strategic plans, to readily available incumbent and new-hire training funds, excitement and momentum is building around workforce development in the greater Portland/Vancouver region.

At the heart of this activity is the Columbia Willamette Workforce Collaborative (CWWC), comprising the region’s three workforce boards: the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC), Worksystems Inc. (WSI) and the Workforce Investment Council of Clackamas County (WICCO).

“What’s beautiful about collaboration is that it helps facilitate more collaboration,” said Jeanne Bennett, SWWDC executive director. “It’s a snowball effect.”

And, continued, Bennett, it’s not just collaboration between the workforce boards. It’s also collaboration with the region’s economic development councils, chambers of commerce and educational institutions, as well as with industry players.

Regional workforce challenges

Last October, the CWWC released its manufacturing strategic plan, and within the year, said Bennett, they will release similar plans for the IT/software and healthcare industries. These plans have a three-fold goal:

1. Build a labor pipeline by attracting interested committed youth.
2. Validate existing talent pools to find work-ready candidates.
3. Strengthen the sector’s community by ensuring firms have continuous improvement opportunities.

Norm Eder, executive director of Manufacturing 21 Coalition – an advocacy organization representing manufacturers in the greater Portland area – worked with the CWWC to develop the manufacturing plan. Eder stated that the greatest challenge for manufacturers is that an aging, retiring workforce is creating a shortage of skilled labor, but there are not enough people in the pipeline to fill their spots.

Jim Lucey, controller at Linear Technology Corporation, said that Linear is in a “modest growth phase,” and that most of their recent hiring has been to replace employees who have retired.

Modern manufacturing requires advanced skill sets, and companies can’t always find workers with those skill sets.

“To improve the product (the workforce), you need to understand the supply chain (education),” said Eder.

Bennett said the CWWC is doing just that by helping young people understand what is involved in a manufacturing career and creating learning experiences. For example, said Lucey, last year the SWWDC hosted STEM Fest, which gave K-12 students an opportunity to learn about industries in our area through site visits and workshops.

The CWWC also targets the adult workforce by providing training and support that identifies and closes skills gaps.

“One of the key elements of the Manufacturing Workforce Plan,” said Lucey, “is to develop skills certification programs at community colleges. We are fortunate that we already have some of these programs in place at Clark College.”

Lucey went on to say that one of Linear’s maintenance technicians is enrolled in Clark’s Mechatronics Technology program, and “has found the curriculum very helpful and relevant to his job responsibilities.”

Collaborative workforce solutions

“As we think about resolving our problems with skills gaps,” said Bennett, “the only viable solution is to work together. Our employers don’t care where their employees come from. They care about if they can do a good job.”

Eder called the manufacturing plan a “major achievement,” and said that the level of collaboration between the region’s workforce boards is “rare, even across the nation.”

Alisa Pyszka, vice president of recruitment and expansion at Greater Portland Inc., said “collaboration is really important. We can explain to prospective companies that they can draw from a much broader pool. It’s a nice sell.”

The bi-state approach is “very compelling when the feds are looking to invest,” said John Gardner, director of business services for Worksystems Inc. According to Gardner, the CWWC has brought $16 million in total resources to the region – “collaboration is already paying dividends.”

The educational community is catching the collaborative fever. Eder said Manufacturing 21 is working with the CWWC to develop better targeting of training resources, developing certifications that are meaningful and that adhere to common levels of validation and level of achievement.

“It shouldn’t matter where you’re trained,” said Eder, such as at Clackamas Community College (CCC), Lower Columbia Community College (LCC) or Clark College. “There should be comparable programs everywhere you go.”

Bennett said that the CWWC recently put out an RFP for a certified production technician program. They expected to receive five separate responses. But instead, Clark, CCC, LCC, Mt. Hood Community College and Portland Community College teamed up and applied for it together.

According to Eder, this program will launch very soon and will have 60 participants enrolled and trained up, ready to go by June.

Industry is part of the solution

The workforce boards and the educational community cannot solve the region’s workforce challenges alone, said Eder.

“If companies complain about the quality of workforce, how unskilled people are – they need to use the system,” he said. “It’s poised to respond.”

For example, Eder said that companies should recognize the CWWC’s certificates of mastery and readiness certificates.

“A smart company realizes these certificates help to quickly identify decent candidates and therefore save money,” said Eder.

Another way industry can contribute is by interacting with the CWWC, providing input on required skills and the success of existing training programs. Bennett said that in March, the CWWC will do a reality check with local industry, evaluating how the manufacturing plan is working. In February and March, the CWWC will convene with the region’s educational institutions and companies to develop IT/software and healthcare industry strategic plans, which she hopes will both be complete before early September.

“I am very encouraged by the efforts made by the SWWDC and the Portland workforce development agencies to develop and implement the [manufacturing] plan,” said Lucey. “The participation from industry has been very good so far and will need to remain so for the plan to be successful.”

Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.

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