By Asia Alvarez Zeller • Of the News-Register • 

Manufacturers struggle to find employees

Manufacturing ranks as one of the largest employment sectors in Yamhill County. As of late, many local manufacturing companies have been trying to fill positions. It turns out, there are a number of reasons why that’s harder to accomplish than it may seem.

One reason is a low unemployment rate, under 4 percent according to Will Summers, a workforce analyst for Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.

Scott Cooper, the executive director of McMinnville Economic Development Partnership said, “when the economy is good, people are employed, and that makes the labor market tough.”

He said he knows of a couple of companies that are each looking for as many as 20 new hires.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but to a company who needs those 20 people to increase their business to serve their customers, the lack of that labor pool affects their business,” Cooper said.

Brandon Malloy, senior staffing consultant at Express Employment Professionals, an organization that matches employees to jobs, said there simply are more job openings than people to fill them in the manufacturing industry.

“I probably have five clients who have endless openings,” Malloy said. “So if you walk through the door and you match the requirements, I can keep sending people. That’s how many people they need.”

Despite increased focus on trade work in schools, there is still a deficit of skilled labor in the area, Summers said. Younger people don’t always have enough exposure to the type of work required.

Deven Paola, president of Solid Form Fabrications, said his company has grown about 25 percent this year.

“Construction seems to be going strong,” Paola said.

He said most of Solid Form’s recent hires have been young people, those straight out of high school or trade school programs.

Still, Paola said, “there’s been a big gap of skilled trade.”

With high school trade programs being reinvigorated, and having training programs of their own, the manufacturing sector is starting to see some slow change.

“I think people are realizing that maybe the college path isn’t right for everyone,” Paola said.

MEDP has two programs in place to help change the workforce issue. McMinnville WORKS and the Career Bound program are both internships that prepare young people for jobs.

McMinnville WORKS places college students in summer jobs to build their skill set in their desired field. Career Bound places graduating high school seniors who may not want to go to college, in manufacturing jobs to learn skills.

Cooper said these programs were created as a response to the need for skilled workers.

“This is not an issue that is solely McMinnville’s or Oregon’s,” Cooper said. “It’s a national issue.”

Both of the programs provide what’s crucial in Summers’ eyes: exposure.

Summers said another part of the equation is that Yamhill County is “within a hop, skip and a jump of the Portland metro area.” Manufacturing companies in the Portland area could be competing with those of Yamhill County.

Malloy has seen this in his experience as well.

“A lot of people are heading toward Tualatin, Beaverton, or even near the airport because the wages are so high up there,” he said.

Cooper said the same can be said for the reverse. Many people commute into McMinnville for work, making the city an employment center, a “net importer of jobs” as Cooper put it.

Rodney Lucas, director of operations at Betty Lou’s, which produces snack bars and other food products, said the company had enjoyed significant growth in the last decade, which has required a major increase in employees. He said in 2010 Betty Lou’s had about 80 employees. Now, the company employs about 280, approximately 200 of whom are production employees.

“Right now our business is picking up even more,” said Lucas. 

The company acts as a co-packer along with its production of its own brand. Both sectors of the business continue to thrive. 

“When [companies] were maybe ordering 100,000 bars at a time, they’re now ordering 1,000,000 bars at a time. To run that, it’s basically all about people ... we’re not automated; we rely on people and Betty Lou likes it that way.”

He added, “I think it affects this area by the fact that we are seeing our business pick up so we need more staff, we need those staff from Yamhill County, we need them mostly from McMinnville.”

The low unemployment numbers make that challenging.

“If they don’t have a job, we want to interview them,” Lucas said. “We want to work with them. And we’re a company, because of who Betty is as a person, who gives everyone a chance.”

The biggest challenge is finding the right fit.

Lucas acknowledged that can be difficult in manufacturing where the work is demanding. Employees have to be on their feet and keep long hours.

“We’re doing 12-hour shifts, and that can be very hard,” he said. “Not everyone can handle that.”

Like other manufacturers in the area, Betty Lou’s trains new employees who may not have production or food service skills. “They don’t have to have experience. We need them to be able to stand and lift and do the work but we do full training.”

Lucas said, “We don’t look for someone who came from food or manufacturing. It’s always a bonus if they do but we’ll hire almost anyone who really wants to work.”

Another contributing factor to the current labor shortage has to do with changes in generational trends.

“We’re seeing the baby boomers hitting full force,” said Summers.

He said 20 years ago the bulk of employment in this sector came from 25-45 year olds. Now, the bulk of employment comes from older age groups. He also said there are “more older folks working in manufacturing than ever before.”

Like Betty Lou’s, Freelin-Wade prides itself on its company culture, and also is attracting workers young and old.

Freelin-Wade began in McMinnville in 1980, creating specialized plastic tubing for the dental industry. It has since expanded into other industries and hopes to continue to grow.

General Manager Scott Schwarm said some new hires are a couple years out of high school and some are in their 50s.

When it comes to employee age demographics, “It’s really across the board,” he said.

“We do have openings,” he said, but he sees little challenge filling them, which he attributes to the company’s overall great culture.

“It might be cliche to say it feels like family, but with 108 employees, it does,” Schwarm said.

Although the local tourism industry and the food and beverage industry are on the rise, manufacturing has long since been a life source for Yamhill County.

Those 80-85 manufacturers who support over 2,000 jobs create a ripple effect in the local economy.

“That payroll’s about 108 million dollars,” Cooper said. “That payroll creates economic health and wealth for a community.”

In turn, it supports what Cooper calls “secondary jobs, jobs that support the rise in employees in other sectors.”

He added, “those employees that work [and] move here — have to spend their money here. They buy groceries, they buy gas, they go out to eat. Those are secondary jobs that those support, and that money stays within the community.”

Manufacturing in the region remains integral to the local economy, so long as those involved keep tackling the workforce issue.

Comments

Rotwang

There is no excuse for an able-bodied individual not to be working in Mac.

Drew1951

As long as we can define not “able bodied.” A person with a physical disability would probably qualify. What about a person who is mentally ill? There are hateful people who claim mental illness is not a real illness—that these people could just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. These hateful people are the true scourges on society. They are the ones I wish would move out of town.

Stella

If their mental illness is Meth (drug) related then the County should provide quality in house drug treatment centers vs handing them taxpayer paid for needles to keep their addiction going.

Lots of jobs available and lots of able-bodied young folk continue to stream out of the area churches after their "free meals" walking right past job opportunities