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Help Wanted: Looking for labor in a tight market

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With unemployment at historic lows, some area positions are tough to fill.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - McMenamins employee Nancy Spangler carries a tray of bread through the crowded kitchen at the Black Rabbit Restaurant at Edgefield resort in Troutdale. The brewing giant is gearing up for the busy summer season, when it boosts its employee numbers. But with unemployment rates at all-time lows, it's getting harder for companies to find qualified workers. "Help Wanted" signs are popping up around the Gresham area like spring flowers, and historically low unemployment in Oregon has sent some local employers scrambling to find enough high-caliber workers for their businesses or agencies.

OUTLOOK GRAPHIC: JOSH BRADLEY - 'Now Hiring' signs are popping up throughout the metro area.Oregon added about 2,400 new jobs in March, pushing the state's unemployment rate down to 3.8 percent, the lowest since records started being kept 41 years ago. In Multnomah County, it's an even tighter 3.2 percent. Nationally, the unemployment rate dipped to 4.4 percent in April, a 10-year low.

"It always makes it challenging when unemployment is low," said Lisa Kinsley, McMenamins general manager for human resources. The regional collection of restaurants, resorts, brew pubs and music venues hires "a ton of seasonal workers in the summer," she said, including several hundred at the busy Edgefield resort in Troutdale.

Employers in a broad range of fields say that makes it harder to find good employees than it was a few years ago. Oregon businesses reported 50,800 job vacancies at any given time in 2016. A new report from the Research Division of the Oregon Employment Department finds that employers classified nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, of those job vacancies as difficult to fill.

"Our professional hiring is not really affected," said Tad Dierckes, director of manufacturing operations at ON Semiconductor in Gresham, but the computer chip maker is finding it challenging to hire enough machine operators. "The low unemployment is the primary reason."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Elijah Sims has been on the job for barely two weeks at the Home Depot store on Southeast Stark Avenue in Troutdale, part of a spring hiring blitz of some 80,000 workers carried out nationwide by the retail giant. Here, Sims waters flowers in the homes and gardens section of the store. Machine operators need only a high school degree and make "several dollars an hour above the minimum wage," Dierckes said. The pay for this position has been increased "several times in the last three years," he said. A machine operator runs the material for the semiconductor wafers through several hundred processing steps on about as many pieces of equipment.

The shortage of applicants crosses industries and timing is sometimes tricky. Lynn Snodgrass, CEO of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce said the harsh winter dampened the need for new employees in some industries, and with the better weather, "they are hiring, but now it is harder to find really good people."

Statistics bear that out. In 2016, two out of every five hard to fill jobs, or 38 percent and almost one-fourth, or 23 percent, of all vacancies in Oregon had an insufficient number of applicants, or none at all, the Employment Department said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Home Depot veteran Heidi Petty arranges flowers in the garden section of the national retailer's Troutdale store. The company is gearing up for the busy summer season, where it is expected to hire some 80,000 workers at stores across the country.Bus drivers wanted

It's no secret that school bus drivers are in short supply. Despite the fact that the school year is almost over, districts and transportation companies are still looking for drivers. First Student, which transports pupils in the Gresham-Barlow School District, as well as Portland, has a bus festooned with "now hiring" banners parked in Gresham's Kmart parking lot in an effort to folks to tempt drivers get on board. First Student pays $16 per hour, the bus banners said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - 'Now Hiring' signs are popping up throughout the metro area, including at the Gresham Marshall's apparel store, as local employers struggle to attract qualified employees in the face of record unemployment rates. Recent news reports have detailed problems First Student has experienced that could reflect the shortage of drivers. Some Portland students were stranded late at night in a small town far from Portland because the First Student bus did not pick them up. Parents had to drive an hour to fetch their children. First Student did not return repeated emails and calls from The Outlook to discuss the incident or their difficulty in finding drivers.

Other industries are also having a bigger challenge rustling up enough good help.

"I know the restaurant industry is having difficulties," Snodgrass said, "and it's not just flipping burgers, but bistros and coffee shops" and other food service such as care facilities.

McMenamin's Kinsley can testify to that.

"The most difficult position to fill is line cooks," she said. "Finding housekeeping staff can also be difficult."

Security positions are also a challenge. Kinsley said Edgefield keeps its shifts covered in all areas through methods such as offering extra shifts to workers at other locations.

Gearing up for its busy summer season, Edgefield has more than two dozen jobs listed on its web page, most of them food-service related. Particularly in the summer, Edgefield is teeming with customers, drawn not only by the attractive grounds and outdoor restaurants and bars, but the hugely popular lawn concerts.

Health care companies are also making their needs known. Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center has 39 jobs open from housekeeping to endoscopy technician to a physician specializing in hospice and palliative care.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - McMenamins cooks Josh Speelman and Chinita Ingram prepare meals at the Black Rabbit Restaurant at Edgefield in Troutdale. The brewing giant is now hiring a glut of workers for the busy summer season.Maintaining interest

In addition to boosting pay, companies are offering special incentives to lure employees.

McMenamins offers a $200 bonus to employees who refer experienced line cooks, and newly-hired line cooks that stay on can qualify for a $300 bonus. Internet advertisements for line cooks show they make about $12 to $16 per hour.

First Student is trying to lure school bus drivers with a $2,000 signing bonus.

ON Semiconductor also is throwing a wider net to try to recruit machine operators and other workers. "We've have to be more active and aggressive," Dierckes said of recruiting efforts.

"We've done a little more advertising, and we're working with the high schools and Mt. Hood Community College." The company has sent representatives to career fairs, high school science classes, put up signs in the schools and in front of its campus at 23400 N.E. Glisan St.

Noting that ON has always found it challenging to find enough top notch technicians, Dierckes said machine operators also have good opportunities for advancement. They can rise to the level of technician by getting a degree, with tuition courtesy of ON.

Despite working harder to find good employees, most companies and agencies are not in full-panic mode.

Home Depot, which hires 80,000 people nationwide in the spring to staff up for summer, said it is finding employees for its stores in East Multnomah County.

"We're on track with our spring hiring campaign," said Matt Harrigan, a public relations officer with the home and hardware giant, but he said "it's definitely competitive in retail right now." Home Depot will hire about 675 people in the 15 stores in the Portland area.

ON Semiconductor said the company will continue to grow in the Gresham area and will need more employees. Dierckes remains confident, however.

"We'll get creative enough to find good people."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Garden Superviser Cherie Goodale pushes a cart across the garden center at the Troutdale Home Depot store. The national retailing giant is gearing up to hire more than 80,000 workers nationwide in preparation for the busy summer season.

Check out Edgefield

McMenamins is holding a job fair to recruit employees for the busy summer season and beyond. Stop by Edgefield resort, 2126 S.W. Halsey, Troutdale, noon to 5 p.m. Thursday, May 25. Edgefield is looking for applicants 18 and older to take a variety of positions. Those interested can fill out an application and interview on the spot. McMenamins said employees get meal credit, merchandise discounts and other benefits.