TOPICS > Economy

How Oregon is investing in the next generation of blue collar workers

January 3, 2016 at 1:48 PM EDT
Over the next decade, economists and business leaders say America faces a shortage of millions of skilled workers for blue collar jobs as Baby Boomers retire. Now, Oregon is planning ahead by ramping up efforts to train Generation X'ers and Millennials to fill middle-skill job openings in technical fields. NewsHour's Christopher Booker reports.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: With their coveralls and safety shields, these students could be mistaken for extras in a post-world war two industrial film, rather than digital age teenagers.

The sights, sounds, and smells coming from this high school metals class in Sherwood, Oregon, look and feel like a 20th century factory.

In some ways, this scene is a relic, because in Oregon, this metals class and other career education courses offered at the school have become rare.

Terrel Smith has been teaching career training classes for 37 years.

TERREL SMITH: Those kind of courses are not available to most high schools in oregon. Many students don’t have the opportunities to experience this career focus, and get them on that career training train, if you will.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Smith says this lack of career training, not only puts students at a disadvantage, but helps contribute to the skills gap between workers and employers in the Oregon economy.

TERREL SMITH: We’re sitting in a metal manufacturing lab where these kids that learn the welding and the working with the metal and manufacturing concepts here are going to be able to walk out and get family wage jobs right out of high school.

And we have a woods program where they’re learning the building trades. So we’re doing it here, but I don’t, we don’t see it in the high school in general. So I think that gap’s going get worse.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Smith’s concern comes at a time when Oregon needs more workers in manufacturing and also growing industries here like healthcare and professional business services.

Overall, the state’s job growth rate is three percent a year — one percent above the national average. Oregon is also creating twice as many jobs needed to keep up with its population growth.

Andrew McGough runs worksystems, a non-profit organization trying to improve the quality of the Portland area workforce.

ANDREW MCGOUGH: We have no problem on the upper end. City of portland itself is above 50 percent of our residents have a bachelor’s degree or above and high school and the middle skills are really where we’re predominantly challenged.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: By “middle skills,” McGough means Oregon’s blue collar industries like advanced manufacturing, production and metal fabrication.

ANDREW MCGOUGH: We have tens of thousands of jobs in very traditional manufacturing areas. The challenge is that new workers don’t appear to be all that interested in those kinds of jobs. We’re projecting about 30 thousand growth and replacement jobs over the course of the next ten years. And there is no way that we’re going to fill that through our traditional means.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: That’s just metal?

ANDREW MCGOUGH:​ That’s just metals, yeah. But the real dearth for employers is on the production side. They just can’t find people who are suited for the kinds of production work that we have available today, and that we see in the near future.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Last summer, two-thirds of Oregon employers reported to the Oregon employment department difficulty filling job vacancies, saying they weren’t receiving enough applicants or too many applicants lacked the necessary skills.

This mismatch is nationwide. The National Skills Coalition, a Washington, D.C. group that advocates for worker training, says while 15 percent of U.S. jobs are low skilled, and 31 percent are high skilled, 54 percent are middle skilled.

But only 44 percent of the country’s workers are trained in those middle skills, a 10 percent gap.

Oregon’s skills gap is better than the national average, only four percent. But some states have a much greater gap. For example, Alabama, 13 percent, and New Jersey, 15 percent.

Oregon has sometimes gotten creative in its response.

With a nearly 500-thousand dollar grant, Sherwood high school teacher John Niebergall drives around the state in a motorhome. Delivering scanners, laser cutters, and 3D printers, Niebergall works with teachers looking to develop or expand career curriculum for their schools.

JOHN NIEBERGALL: Industry’s realizing those baby boomers are retiring, and we have to fill the pipeline. I want 23, 24-year-olds that can buy a house, because they have a living-wage career, and i think this field of advanced manufacturing has those opportunities.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Niebergall’s grant came from a state fund established for career
and technical education revitalization. Known as the CTE grant, the fund was established in 2011, and has so far distributed about 22 million dollars.

But according to an analysis by the The Oregonian newspaper, statewide “about 61 percent of grant applications were not funded and more than half of all oregon middle and high school students had no access to programs last year.”

Oregon governor Kate Brown wants to change that.

GOV. KATE BROWN: I’m out traveling and meeting with oregon business people, the first question that I ask them is, ‘what is the biggest challenge that you face?’ And inevitably, they tell me that the biggest challenge is having a talented, diverse work pool to hire from.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In July, governor Brown signed a bill authorizing $35 million in spending for career and technical education, nearly doubling the state’s investment.

When we spent our day with Sherwood high school, one of the teachers said to us that he actually views this, this need and this push as a social justice issue. Do you agree?

GOV. KATE BROWN: Oh, totally, absolutely. It provides career options for students who don’t necessarily have them right now. We want our students to graduate from high school, but we want them to graduate with a plan, whether it’s college or career. And career and technical ed opens all numerous possibilities for our students.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While governor Brown says she plans to press the state legislature for permanent CTE funding, the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union is preparing for baby boomer retirement. Estimating that 40-percent of its carpenters will retire in the next decade, the union has been recruiting young people to shore up its ranks.

Jennifer yost has been a carpenter apprentice for three years.
When she finishes her apprenticeship next year, she will be a pile driver working in marine construction.

JENNIFER YOST: Full scale for pile drivers in our area is $35.77 an hour, plus you get vacation pay, you have health insurance, which is something for me was huge, and you have a pension. Once you’re vested after five years, you draw into a pension.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Yost followed a circuitous route to the profession, taking a handful of college courses after high school, then working in customer service, before her uncle encouraged her to think about pursuing a trade.

JENNIFER YOST: I came into the apprenticeship when I was 33. And I wish I would have known about it right out of school, you know? Just so I could have taken advantage of it then and had all these years reinvested.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: As one of 842 area apprentices, Yost says, unlike many of her friends, the union apprenticeship program provided a path to a debt-free education.

JENNIFER YOST: This is the first time that I feel like I’ve been able to work a job where I can help others instead of having to ask for help. Like, I’m self-sustaining.”

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: This 60 acre facility along the Willamette river, is where one of Oregon’s long-time employers, Vigor Industrial, has over a thousand skilled workers, from pipe fitters to welders, Vigor builds ships and repairs some of the largest vessels in the world. Frank foti is the CEO.

FRANK FOTI: The industrial worker of today that sort of looks nearly extinct in the U.S. may be one of the most prized assets we have in a very short period of time.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Vigor says the average age of the Portland workforce is 42, and the company says its is perpetually recruiting, offering after school programs for high school students and partnerships with community colleges.

Recent high school graduate Zac Clayville works on Vigor’s Portland yard as a tool room attendant.

ZAC CLAYVILLE: I didn’t know what I wanted to do or I just didn’t wanna sit around, like in an office job.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Zac learned about vigor through an after school program called pathways to manufacturing.

ZAC CLAYVILLE: Everyone’s thoughts at least in high school is, ‘I’m going to go out there. I’m going to work my ass off. And I’m going to make nothing doing it. I might as well go flip a burger instead of swing a hammer; much easier, for the same price.’ But not many people
realize that there are really well-paying jobs down here.”

Foti says it is this very narrative that will ultimately need to change if the state and the businesses working in the state, hope to entice the next generation of workers to the trades.

FRANK FOTI: I mean, these are huge earning jobs. This is people that you are seeing here with their hard hats and safety vests on are in the $50,000 to $100,000 a year range. The jobs are interesting. They’re safe. And you walk away saying, “I made this.” And there are so few things that we get to say that about in our country today.