Washington County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Oregon and arguably — the nation. Currently, it's at 3.6 percent. Given this success, why should we invest in workforce training and development for Washington County and for our region? Aren't we already there? Some say we're at full employment, or as close as we are going to get to it, but there are still more than 11,000 Washington County residents looking for work.
In my role as executive director of Westside Economic Alliance, I have had the opportunity to sit on the Board of Directors for Worksystems, the Portland Metro Workforce Development Board, for four years. I have been on the Executive Committee of Worksystems for a year. During my tenure with the Board, I have learned a great deal about workforce development and the importance of matching the skills and abilities of the workforce to the demands of our local industries.
The Great Recession took a huge toll on our region, and a complete recovery was only achieved a few years ago. We are now moving past the recovery phase and through a phase of rapid growth that rivals the growth of the mid 1990's — this was not expected by most economists. Our income growth is also exceeding expectations, an economic expansion that brings our spending power to the best level it has been in decades.
Yet, despite our success, many families in Washington County have a different story to tell. More than 70,000 Washington County residents are living in poverty. About 15 percent (26,389) of Washington County's workforce is working full time, yet they earn less than $25,000 per year.
At the same time, there are a number of Washington County employers who offer high quality jobs in industries like healthcare, Information technology, and manufacturing that are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified workers to meet their needs. There is also a whole generation of workers retiring now and in the coming years too, which is adding to the demand for skilled workers. Our businesses need a skilled labor force to draw from in order to stay competitive in today's global market.
The net effect of this divide — unskilled residents with insufficient wages on the one hand and employers grappling with a shortage of skilled labor to drive productivity and growth on the other — is a significant threat to the continued health and growth of our economy.
Fortunately, there are many organizations dedicated to improving the quality of our workforce. These include our K-12 education system, Portland Community College, WorkSource Portland Metro, the Department of Human Services and an array of community-based organizations. The contribution to the workforce effort varies from group to group. It is Worksystems' role to bring these partners together to help coordinate a system that assures all of these efforts are working together.
To be effective in growing the skills sets of our local workers and to meet industry needs, several things need to happen. We need a regional workforce system that is aligned and utilizes funding from a myriad of sources. Together we need to ensure that underserved residents, those on public assistance, those with low basic skills, and communities of color can all access training and skill development to fill current and emerging quality jobs. We also need to ensure that our youth, our future workforce, has the academic and workplace competencies that are required by our regional employers. Finally, we need to work with employers to ensure that they can find the local talent they need to grow their businesses and to remain competitive.
Through these ongoing efforts, workforce development will continue to be a focus in filling the needs of both the workers and the industries of our region. These efforts play a key role in our region's economic vitality. By working together, we can ensure a skilled local labor force is available to meet the growing jobs demands. As a result, hopefully, we can all thrive together in a healthy economy.
Pamela Treece is the executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance. Her column appears monthly, addressing issues that are critical to the economic health of the Westside. Learn more about the WEA at: westsidealliance.org