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Region needs a strong workforce

Oregon is known for many things when it comes to work: A leader in high-tech innovation. A producer of finely crafted wood products. A source of diverse and plentiful agricultural bounty. And a center of manufacturing growth that is the envy of the nation.

But as illustrated in the latest edition of 'Rethinking Portland,' included in today's News-Times, Oregon soon may be known for something else: a work-force crisis of either challenging significance or treacherous proportions.

It is estimated that the state's economy will create 250,000 new jobs over the next decade and that another 400,000 jobs will open as baby boomers retire. As the economic engine of the state, the Portland region can expect to see at least half of those jobs created in this region.

Employers already are having serious trouble finding qualified applicants to fill these new positions or replace retirees. Many employers are reaching out of state to recruit for manufacturing positions and even some low-tech jobs. Others are letting many positions go unfilled.

In fact, Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, who serves on the regional Workforce Investment Board, estimates that there currently are 20,000 unfilled jobs in the Portland area - approximately one-third of which pay $20 or more per hour.

This work-force crisis is not occurring in a vacuum, and not without many well-intentioned people trying to make a difference.

Regionally, there are numerous educational, employer- and government-aided programs, but their results are mixed and disconnected.

A study conducted by ECONorthwest says that 80 different organizations, including community colleges, are spending close to $150 million in Washington and Multnomah counties in work-force development. High school and higher education programs represent yet another layer of investment and job-training activity.

But while there are many programs, there is no fully integrated work-force system. In addition, there is little to no tracking of workers as they are hired, and no guarantees for employers that they will have qualified workers when they need them.

Change is needed on many fronts, but here is a short list of our recommendations:

• Create a unified work-force development system.

• Establish and follow measurable results.

• Re-establish a greater sense of pride in work.

• Invest in public infrastructure.

• Prioritize.

The creation and retention of family-wage jobs should be Oregon's No. 1 policy.