Developing talent pipelines in rural communities

Public and private entities partner to launch State of Washington’s Upskill Backfill workforce initiative

With the lumber industry’s collapse and the 2001 closure of an aluminum smelting plant, Klickitat County has been searching for an industry to call its own. Today, with 3,000 residents, the Columbia Gorge towns of Bingen and White Salmon are home to the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry – employing nearly 1,000 workers at high-tech companies such as Custom Interface, Innovative Composite Engineering, Sagetech and Zepher.

The emergence of the UAV industry could not have come at a better time – as the region’s economic challenges have persisted. Klickitat County consistently experiences unemployment rates about 2 percent higher than the state average. Compounding the unemployment rate, the region lacks higher education and skill training opportunities.

In 2017, the South Central Workforce Development Council (SCWDC) collaborated with the region’s UAV industry, Clark College Economic & Community Development, Klickitat County and area school districts to launch the State of Washington’s Upskill Backfill Initiative. The initiative’s participating companies prefer to hire local talent, but require workforce-training resources. The initiative is proving the key to meeting this need. Through training topics such as supervisory skills, the up-skill component prepares those currently employed for promotion.

Through new local hires, the backfill component provides industry and team training.

“This allows the companies to pick up workers from their backyard; train and shape them in the image of the company and to really get the best worker that they possibly can,” said SCWDC’s Justin Merrell, the initiative’s fiscal agent.

The initiative has trained 158 employees – with 54 up-skilled workers seeing wage increases and 84 new backfill hires as of April 2018. Zepher’s Kirsten Dennis credits the initiative for benefiting the company’s bottom line, enabling Zepher to grow its own workforce, retain employees and decrease turnover.

“Turnover is very costly,” Dennis said. “We are a growing company, so as we grow, we can develop our employees with us. Giving our employees the skills to meet our customer’s needs is incredibly valuable for the company.”

Feeling valued ties the initiative’s participating students together. Innovative Composite Engineering’s (ICE) Dustin Smith appreciates his employer’s workforce investment. ICE’s human resource manager, Lori Wolford, could not agree more.

“Training is important in many ways – it’s important to the employee, it builds moral, it builds confidence,” Wolford said.

Leadership training is the number one training request Clark College Economic & Community Development receives from employers and a number of the initiative’s classes address this particular skill gap. Recently promoted Zepher Manager Kerry Perkins credits the classes for her improved communication skills, ability to encourage employees and understanding of S.M.A.R.T Goals.

As workers up-skill into higher-wage positions, economic opportunity affects families and the community. ICE’s Rob Warwick credits his participation in the initiative for his recent promotion and recognizes the subsequent benefit to the local community.

“Anytime I can go out to eat more or spend my hard-earned money here locally, we thrive as a community,” Warwick said.

With local trainings, employees do not sacrifice work/life balance and avoid long commutes for the customized training. While Custom Interface’s Anabelle Barber would travel for customized training, she appreciates the convenience of the trainings and ability to continue her work right after class – and still arrive home at the same time every day.

“I don’t think our employees would have been able to participate – definitely not on the level we’ve been participating in this training – if it were held in Vancouver,” Dennis said. “It would have been a lot more hours for (employees) outside of work and much more inconvenient. It’s definitely made it much more convenient to have (the training) literally next door.”

During the 18-month initiative, Clark College will train nearly 162 employees and provide in excess of 300 hours of training via 45 courses and nine subject matter experts.

Through this partnership, the community came together to create a replicable, proven model. Unexpected gains have surfaced, too – as Custom Interface’s Emily Aman notes: “I was generally aware of the other companies in the local UAV ecosystem, but as this program has developed, we have learned a lot about each other and gained a lot of insight into growing our own companies and working together in the training facility.”

When faced with a limited labor pool – far from education providers, this initiative proves what is possible in rural communities, enabling employers to develop in-demand skills.

“I’ve been coordinating training for years,” Wolford said. “It’s always difficult to get the necessary training in a rural area. My first choice is always to bring it onsite, I can rarely do that; so being able to network with other employers in the area – raise the volume of students needed to bring those trainers on-site with the added benefit of the employee being out for only a half day versus full day – is valuable to any rural employer.”

Kevin Witte is vice president of Economic & Community Development at Clark College.

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