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State needs skilled workers

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Oregon is known for many things when it comes to work. Among other accomplishments, this state is:

* 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 our latest edition of Rethinking Portland, included in today's West Linn Tidings, Oregon soon may be known for something else: A work-force crisis of either challenging significance or treacherous proportion.

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 begin to retire from the work force.

As the economic engine of the state, the metro region can expect to see at least half of those jobs created in this area.

Many jobs are left unfilled

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. Other less-than-fortunate employers are having many positions go unfilled.

In fact, Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, who also 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 the local area 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 guarantee for employers that they will have qualified workers when they need them.

Ways to prepare for future

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

n Create a unified, strategic work-force development system.

Oregon business leaders from groups such as Manufacturing 21 and the Business and Leadership Coalition already aim for the 2009 Legislature to initiate some of this improvement. One model may be found in Florida, where high schools are required to work with business and labor to create strategies to meet future work-force needs.

n Establish and follow measurable results.

Tracking workers and jobs will help gauge the effectiveness of work-force development programs. And such a system will allow funding to be focused on programs that successfully prepare workers for jobs that actually exist. Training programs that don't measure up should be retooled or shut down.

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

Schools, businesses and government agencies should partner to create expanded job and volunteer opportunities for young people to once again learn that work is a value to be sought after, not avoided.

n Invest in public infrastructure.

Building new schools, roads, transit, sewer and water systems and maintaining aging facilities not only employs people now but helps to prepare Oregon for the future.

n Prioritize.

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