EDITORIAL: Job vacancy report highlights need for technical education
Mar 01, 2013 (The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
When the unemployment rate has been stuck above 8 percent for more than four years, as it has in Oregon, finding a job can seem as difficult as navigating Class 5 rapids on an inner tube. But a recent report from the Oregon Employment Department suggests some employment paths where economic life rafts are available.
The 2012 Job Vacancy Survey showed that Oregon had 31,230 job vacancies last fall -- and 158,600 unemployed workers. Those odds don't look good. Yet the report identified 21 job categories where employers said 40 percent or more of their openings were difficult to fill.
Some of the positions -- certified nursing assistants and school-bus drivers, for example -- offer relatively low pay. Others -- fence erector, with 100 percent classified as hard-to-fill -- have limited career paths and difficult work conditions. But a surprising number of jobs with family wages and the potential for advancement stay open 60 days or more because Oregon doesn't produce enough skilled laborers.
Many of the hard-to-fill jobs are in health care or involve skilled trades in the manufacturing or construction industries, such as welders and machine-tool operators. Oregon should increase job-training efforts in these areas.
To their credit, legislators recognize the opportunity these fields present. Few issues draw as much bipartisan support at the state Capitol as career and technical education. Brad Avakian, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, submitted a request to extend funding of the Career and Technical Education Revitalization Grant Program that the Legislature created in 2011. Senate Bill 498, which would provide funding for those grants, has 87 sponsors -- almost the entire Legislature.
Avakian is hoping for $20 million in funding, which would allow the program to add 50 to 70 more schools. The first round of grants allowed 21 schools to offer new or improved vocational programs. These programs meet two critical needs: They provide a path to family-wage jobs and match the needs of employers. Schools applying for funds must show close community partnerships and demonstrate that the curriculum meets skill-set requirements of existing employers and/or emerging industries.
Approving Avakian's funding request is an easy first step to improving career and technical education and putting more workers on a path toward living wages -- but only a first step.
Community colleges serve two essential functions in equipping the Oregon workforce for the future. They are the primary provider of career retraining programs and they offer advanced training for high school graduates who either didn't have access to technical education or want to enhance their skills.
Portland Community College offers a range of health-related programs. Its nursing program produces registered nurses, provided they pass a licensing exam, with an associate degree who have the option of either seeking immediate employment or continuing toward a bachelor's degree in nursing at Oregon Health & Science University or another school. (Those with a four-year degree are in greater demand.)
Last year, the program at the Sylvania campus had 900 applicants for 80 positions. For a state known for innovation in health care, it is unacceptable to have inadequate educational infrastructure to train those who want to enter a health-care profession.
PCC's machine-manufacturing program faces the opposite problem. It needs more students. "We have a really hard time attracting what industry says we need, which is younger workers," said George Knox, coordinator for student employment and cooperative education at the Sylvania campus.
Knox said adding machine-related classes in more high schools could increase interest and improve the mechanical skill sets of those entering PCC programs. While machine-tool programs don't exactly fit Portland's young-creative image, they offer a huge potential payoff.
Avakian said one foreign company considered locating a plant in Oregon to build component parts for the geothermal industry, but had concerns about the availability of skilled workers. "It's limitless the number of companies we could attract here to build things again," he said.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technical training, there are too many limits in Oregon. It's time to change that by putting a laser focus on increasing the number of Oregonians who are qualified for the family-wage jobs that employers struggle to fill even with unemployment at 8.4 percent.
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