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Goal: Be the city that welds

Proposed industrial training facility aims at worker shortage

An alliance of Oregon manufacturers is working with city and Portland State University officials on a facility that would train Portland-area students for good-paying manufacturing jobs, as well as help keep those jobs in Oregon.

The industry group, called the Manufacturing 21 Coalition, is seeking locations for a proposed Center for Manufacturing and Infrastructure Engineering that would train workers, and also provide research and development labs for Oregon companies.

'This would put us on par I think with virtually any major (engineering) research facility in the United States,' said Bill Wood, a PSU professor of mechanical and materials engineering who has been working on the effort. 'There would be just a handful of comparable sites.'

For years manufacturers ranging from Columbia Iron Works to Gunderson Rail Services have been complaining that they can't find qualified workers to fill jobs in welding and other metals-related fields, jobs that pay $50,000 and more. It's a problem, they say, that will only get worse as baby boomers retire.

The new center is intended to produce those workers as quickly as local companies can hire them.

Not only that, but the center would help companies research engineering and material issues, for instance by figuring out how to use less heavy metals to harden steel.

'Industry is trying to make a better widget,' said David Marks of Marks Metal Manufacturing in Clackamas County. 'They're trying to make their product better.'

The coalition is working on the project with the Portland Development Commission, the city's urban renewal agency.

PDC staffer Patricia Ryan said the center would help offset the pressure on manufacturers to send those jobs to other countries: 'It would do some pretty incredible things to support that industry.'

Everyone seems to agree this is a great idea. The only catch? Will the numbers work - and what jurisdiction wants it badly enough?

Right now, though Milwaukie and Gresham have made proposals for the project, it seems like Portland has the edge.

'They want to be close to a university,' said PDC chairman Mark Rosenbaum of the coalition, adding that he is optimistic that his agency can be part of the equation. 'It's the kind of thing that PDC does very well and needs to do more of.'

'It's an exceptionally exciting project,' he added. 'If there's a way that they can locate on the streetcar line connected to Portland State, that would be a huge win for the city and for Portland State.'

Center doubles as think tank

According to the description of the project issued by the coalition, the center would have about 10 full-time employees and would be used by 100 to 150 people per day. It could be used by any university in the state and would be part think tank, advocating on the part of industry and helping plug holes between education and work-force needs.

Marks, who chairs the coalition, said he is confident that the industry could double its investment in research and development, to $4 million a year. But his board wants to make sure the numbers work, to be satisfied that they will not be 'creating an albatross,' he said.

If asked to place odds on the center becoming reality, he said, 'Today I would have to say 60, 70 percent.'

Wood, the PSU professor who has been working with the coalition, seemed more optimistic about the industry's level of interest, saying, 'I think the industry is 100 percent there.'

Closer-in sites are in play

According to its initial request for sites, the coalition initially had intended to get a deal in place by the end of 2006, and was looking for 7 to 10 acres. Instead, it received only four proposals.

Now the group is seeking a second round of proposals, having modified its proposal to allow for fewer acres. This is what puts Portland in the running.

Though the city already offered sites in the Airport Way and Willamette Industrial Urban Renewal areas, it now is looking at closer-in sites, Ryan said.

According to Wood, PSU would benefit by consolidating several different engineering labs into one area, allowing multidisciplinary overlap that helps students and allows many more to be prepared for the workplace.

PSU already has more than 100 students enrolled in mechanical engineering alone, he said, and 'finding jobs hasn't been an issue at all.'

The prospects for properly trained workers will improve over the next decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 3.3 million fewer workers than jobs in 2012.

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