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Got jobs, need skilled workers

As baby boomers exit workplace, bosses have more reason to worry

Drew Park has given up using help-wanted ads to find new workers for his North Portland company, Columbia Wire and Iron Works.

'There just aren't that many skilled workers looking for jobs anymore,' said Park, president of the longtime manufacturing company.

Instead, Park has turned to unconventional sources for new employees, including job-training programs operated by the Oregon Department of Corrections and nonprofit agencies working with troubled and homeless youths.

'There's some risk there, but a lot of time we find people who have seen the other side of life and didn't realize there were good jobs where you don't have to look just right or dress just right all the time,' he said.

Even then, Park said, about half of the new hires last only a few months on the job before quitting.

'They're not used to showing up for work every day, or they get impatient with the process. You have to go through 10 workers to find five,' he said.

Park is not the only local employer having problems finding new employees. So are many other companies that rely on welders, electricians, engineers, truck drivers and other skilled workers.

Nick Wilson, co-founder of the local Atlas Landscape Architecture firm, said he had so much trouble finding a qualified applicant recently that he obtained a work permit to hire an Egyptian architect attending the University of Oregon.

'I had very few applicants, and they either had no work experience or were overqualified,' Wilson said.

'These are jobs with good companies that pay $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year, and they're going unfilled. It's a huge issue,' said Norm Eder, a partner with the Conkling Fiskum McCormick public relations firm, who is working with Park and other manufacturers on the issue.

Their organization, the Manufacturing 21 Coalition, was formed several years ago because of the growing difficulty of finding skilled workers.

In fact, the lack of skilled workers is a national problem. A 2005 survey of 800 manufacturers conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers found that more than 80 percent of them were having problems hiring skilled workers.

The problem is expected to grow over the next decade as more and more baby boomers retire and take their job skills with them. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting there will be 3.3 million fewer workers than jobs in 2012.

'We're going to lose 50,000 to 60,000 skilled workers in Oregon over the next 10 years - the vast majority of them from the Portland metropolitan area,' Eder said.

The issue will be discussed at today's breakfast meeting sponsored by the Oregon Business Plan, an annual economic development strategy produced by the Oregon Business Council. It will begin at 8 a.m. at the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, 4134 N. Vancouver Ave.

The meeting will include both employers and experts on the issue, including Portland-based economist Joe Cortright and Marist College management professor Robert Grossman. It is intended to focus attention on the work force shortage problem before the fifth annual Leadership Summit, where the next plan will be adopted Jan. 7.

'There's no silver-bullet solution. It's going to call for a whole series of educational and employment changes,' Cortright said.

According to Park, the Manufacturing 21 Coalition and other employers' groups also will ask the 2007 Oregon Legislature to appoint a committee to focus on work-force needs. He wants the committee to work with employers like his company to understand the needs of the business community.

'We want them to ask us what we need, not tell us what they think we need,' he said.

In addition, many of the companies will send representatives to the NW Youth Career Show set for May 10 at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It is expected to attract 5,000 recent high school graduates.

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