COLUMN: Health care, manufacturing jobs targeted in new workforce training plan

Nurses are among the local jobs expected to see the most growth in the coming years.(Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

After decades of declining federal funding, the Willamette Workforce Partnership, the local area workforce board, will see its annual job-training budget double in the space of the next few months. 

Here’s why: The Oregon legislature just passed and the Governor signed legislation that will distribute $200 million across the state for various workforce-related projects. The workforce partnership will receive $4.5 million of it.

Why now? Isn’t the economy recovered from the pandemic, and isn’t unemployment as low as before the pandemic took the economy into a tailspin?

Officially, both are true. Total employment is recovered from where it was pre-pandemic – health care and local education are still short some jobs. Other industries have recovered to pre-pandemic employment levels and beyond.

And the Salem area unemployment rate is as low as it’s ever been – 3.8%.

However, employers are having an unusually difficult time finding employees. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are only seven job seekers for every ten job openings.

But employers have always had trouble filling two types of jobs, no matter how high or low the unemployment rate: those paying low wages, and those requiring considerable skill and/or education. 

The pandemic put a spotlight on the mostly low-paid workers who keep daily life going, such as retail clerks, day care workers, grocery checkers and the like. There is evidence that pay for these types of jobs has been increasing and that should help hiring.

But filling job vacancies requiring skills and/or education beyond high school is even more of a challenge for employers in these unusual times.

Job seekers have a challenge too. Without skills or education beyond high school, a person is likely to be employed in a low wage job with little chance of moving to a better-paying one. 

This is where the $200 million comes in. The goal is to use the money to get job seekers, particularly those most negatively affected by the pandemic, the training and/or education they need to either get a good-paying job or get on the path to one. 

Even with the low unemployment rate, 8,000 people in the Salem area were unemployed in March 2022. In times like these, job seekers often have multiple barriers to landing a job, such as living in rural areas, lack of transportation, being formerly incarcerated, etc. 

Therefore, in addition to funding training, the $200 million allocates funds specifically for “support” services to help job seekers access and complete training – things like help with child care, transportation, buying needed training equipment and paying an emergency bill to help trainees stay on course.

Let’s see how that might work by looking at the occupational projections of the Oregon Employment Department for the local area. Every two years, for ten years into the future, state economists project the number of job openings for approximately 500 occupations, and the requirements for entering the occupations, for Oregon and all local areas. An extensive employer survey is the source for occupational wages.Health care remains one of the highest-need areas for employment in the greater Salem area (Pamela Ferrara/Special to Salem Reporter)

Health care was called out in the funding legislation as a training priority. According to the 2020 to 2030 local area projections, health care occupations will have some 28,000 job openings (see table above). It is one of the few occupational groups with considerable growth; currently, it has the second-highest number of job vacancies after leisure and hospitality. There are good-paying jobs in health care that can be accessed with a community college degree and/or certification.

Top healthcare occupations in the Salem area (Pamela Ferrara/Special to Salem Reporter)

Nearly one third of all health care openings are in five occupations (see table above). Three of the top five pay less than $20 an hour, and one, registered nurse, pays well but requires a bachelor’s degree to enter. However, there are a number of health care occupations requiring training only or associate’s degrees and that pay well, including dental assistants, pharmacy techs and medical records specialists. The funding legislation will help pay for training for these types of occupations, for needed supplies like scrubs, and will help with child care and transportation as well.  

Manufacturing occupations were also targeted for training by the funding legislation. The local area occupational projections predict nearly 22,000 total openings in these types of occupations. Two of the top five occupations in terms of openings pay more than $20 an hour (see table below). But for the supervisory position, a bachelor’s is suggested in order to be a competitive job applicant, and for the welder position, post-secondary training gives an applicant a competitive edge. Once again, training and education matter.

Top production occupations in the Salem area (Pamela Ferrara/Special to Salem Reporter)

The National Association of Manufacturers, recognizing how important training and skills are to the industry, began a skills certification program in 2009. Dozens of certifications for various manufacturing occupations now exist. Acquiring these will help job applicants earn higher wages, and help manufacturing employers hire a skilled workforce.  

All this extra training money coming to the workforce board while the unemployment rate is as low as it has ever been is an interesting situation. Kim Parker-Llerenas, executive director of the Willamette Workforce Partnership, sees challenges and opportunities in this once-in-a-generation legislative investment.

Finding job trainees will need to occur in new and creative ways by forming partnerships with community-based organizations not typically connected to the workforce system. But having the funds to provide generous support services will set up individuals for success by reducing barriers to successfully completing a training program. 

The Willamette Workforce Partnership will be announcing new programs over the coming months. Keep track by accessing their website at:  

Pam Ferrara of the Willamette Workforce Partnership continues a regular column examining local economic issues. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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