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Economy | Getting Back To Work

Getting Back To Work In A Recession

Getting back to work…it’s a subject that’s on the minds of many people in the Pacific Northwest.

How can we restore jobs that were lost in the recession?

And how can workers acquire the skills they need for the future?  We’ll explore those questions in this special documentary, “Getting Back to Work.”

Oregon’s job market is still hurting. The unemployment rate has been stuck at about 10.6 percent since March.  That’s according to new statewide figures out this week. 

That rate is down a full percentage point from a year ago. But so many workers are still idle that the jobless rate has been essentially static for the past seven months.

How are Oregonians getting back to work? We’ll examine some of the challenges facing anyone trying to fit back into a puzzling job scene.

But first, we take a look at Oregon’s workforce.

Laura Davidson is one of the thousands of Oregonians who aren’t working right now. She’s volunteering at Multnomah County’s Department of Community Corrections. Her cubicle sits a long way from the chic, high-tech firms she used to recruit for.

She came to Oregon in another recession, fall of 2001, to downsize her go-go San Francisco life. The first few years she flourished.

She found local recruiting work and took some classes in criminal justice. But as the economy buckled, layoffs hit the small firm where she worked.

At first, it wasn’t hard to find steady contract jobs. But now she’s been without a regular gig since April 2009. So her ideas about work have changed a lot.

Davidson says this volunteer job has taught her a lot. It keeps her busy, and helps build skills for her resume. All told, it hasn’t been an unnatural transition.

Laura Davidson    “I went from selling a person to an organization, based on their attributes and their skill set, Now I’m kind of matching people with the services and level of supervision they might need. It is very much the same, you’re keeping a file, you’re updating it.”

In the course of her work as a recruiter, Davidson noticed a few things about Oregon’s work force – at both high and low ends. And she says she noticed differences between Oregon and San Francisco.

Laura Davidson   “ In the Bay Area, if you had a prestigious company on our resume and a good school, you were probably going to get an interview. Because they don’t want to pass up intense brainpower.”

Here in Oregon, Davidson says she sees workers having to rely more heavily on personal relationships and social networks. She also noticed something else that makes a difference in how people view their work here – the Oregon lifestyle.

Laura Davidson  “And I don’t want it to sound any other way than how I intend it. People really appreciate what they have here. If it’s sunny, they don’t need to make any excuses for leaving at four. Everyone gets it.”

But state statistics tell us Oregon’s unemployed workforce is mostly male, trending young – except for rural areas, where older workers have been hit especially hard by layoffs.

Education levels vary, depending on geography. John Sahlberg is with Boise Cascade, the wood-products giant with operations in Medford and LaGrande. A few positions with the company are opening here and there. The company’s trying to fill them by recalling laid-off workers, But Sahlberg says these are not your father’s mill jobs, and local workers don’t always walk in with skills that fit the company’s needs.

John Sahlberg  “What we look for a higher skilled level of employee that has some computer knowledge and expertise and also strong math quantitative abilities. Difficult in rural areas to find those skill sets.”

Sahlberg says Boise always tried to hire local first, but it’s not easy, given that few people outside big cities have the chance to get those technical skills.

In the state’s urban labor markets, job competitors have exactly the opposite problem.

Christian Kaylor  “The 2008 census numbers just came out for the city of Portland, and 42% of adult population has a college degree. That may not sound huge, but it is.”

Christian Kaylor is a workforce analyst at the Oregon Employment Department. Kaylor says people have been going back to school in vast numbers, even before the recession hit. While getting a degree may seem like a great way to ride out the slump, Kaylor says it’s not the asset it used to be.

Christian Kaylor   “It used to be a generation or 2 ago, a degree made you an elite. You were more likely to get a job just on the basis of having a college degree.”

A lot of that benefit, he says, has been erased. Metro-area employers faced with a deluge of applications aren’t just picking out degreed candidates to interview. That means workers at all levels have to re-think their expectations.

That’s certainly true for a worker who applied successfully to one of the Oregon job market’s brightest spots.

Gail Brunker: “ I checked SolarWorld’s website, I mean, three times a week.” 

Gail Brunker, from Albany, is one of the newest hires at SolarWorld USA, the German-based photovoltaic panel maker that’s adding about 350 jobs by the end of the year. Brunker took a substantial pay cut, he says, to work at Solarworld, but that’s a compromise he was willing to make. SolarWorld appeals to him because it’s in an industry that he believes has a bright future.

Gail Brunker: “I was hesitant about going back into manufacturing… but never say never . One of the areas I thought, if I was going to get back into it, I wanted to be in the green technologies.”

Re-tooling skills, going back to school, re-adjusting expectations…. We’ll hear more from people who are trying to fit themselves back into the labor market in these ways. But there is another option: entrepreneurism.

Starting your own business comes with risks, of course, but also with rewards, as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports.

‘The Boot Outlet’ can be found tucked behind a pizza joint along Portland’s Southeast 82nd Avenue. It’s on a flag lot and it’s not easy to find. But the first customer this morning, Jay Main, persisted because of a friend’s recommendation.

Bieker Boots
Victor Bieker: Making the best of a bad economy

Jay Main: “Yeah, I’m looking for something to put on the end of my legs.”

Main is a retired concrete worker. He’s looking for a quality boot, but he doesn’t want to spend too much.

Jay Main: “Having worked construction all my life I used to cut the corner and not pay attention to any quality. Buy the cheapest boot. Wrong. You’re on your feet all day long so you need something that’s comfortable.”

Kristian: “How often do you go through a pair of boots? How often are you buying?”

Jay Main: “Well I usually have about four or five pair going. So I’m buying probably every four or five months.”

Kristian: “And how much do you expect to pay for a pair of boots?”

Jay Main: “Well, I’d say somewhere around the $125 to the $150.”

That’s a fair sum two or three times a year. And that makes work boots a niche market in which Victor Bieker thinks he can compete.

Victor Bieker: “My goal was, in a bad economy, was to generate a bit of excitement by bringing in a new brand and offering what I call that wholesale price. in some cases we’re almost $100 less than competing brands.”

Bieker is a short, stocky guy with glasses, graying hair and jeans. Standing at his new cash register, the 48-year-old recalls starting his career — making $2-an-hour on the production line at Danner Boots in Portland.

Victor Bieker: “That was a bad economy then too. My father was in construction, Most of his kids were destined for the construction industry and the economy went bad and we all took jobs.”

He started measuring the feet of construction workers, welders and loggers. Then he moved on to making patterns for their boots and eventually he ran quality control at the Danner factory.  A few years ago Danner was taken-over and Bieker moved to another Oregon company, Columbia Sportswear.

Victor Bieker: “It was exciting. It was a great experience. I’ve been to Asia a total of 70 some times at this point.”

When times were good, Bieker was lured to Ohio by another company. So he uprooted his  family and settled in for what he thought would be an easy path to retirement as a vice president.

Victor Bieker: “But unfortunately, the economy took a turn for the worse and a lot of the new guys that they’d brought on within the last three or four years were let go. That’s my first lay off in my 30 year career.  It’s difficult when you’re a long ways away from home, you built a new house and now you’re unemployed in a distressed state.  So you take a look at what you’ve got available, you take a look at what your options are and then you create an action plan.”

That was about a year-and-a-half ago and the “action plan”  took the form of a new brand ‘Bieker Boots.’ They look much like every other work boot, but they’re cheaper — because they’re made in China — and perhaps the materials aren’t quite as fancy. And he went from the six-figure salary of a vice president, to the low five-figure salary of a store clerk.

He says it’s exciting to be his own boss and to try something new.

Victor Bieker: “But I got to tell you. It’s a lot of sleepless nights. It’s a lot of work. I’m committed to it. My family’s committed to it. My associates are committed to it. And we’re going to make this work.”

There are three employees at Bieker Boots so far. There’s Bieker, his long-time friend and footwear veteran Dan Bennette and Bieker’s wife Lisa — she does the accounting. She says starting a business has been a big change for the family — especially their two children.

Lisa Bieker: “Because they’re used to getting pretty much everything they want, but we don’t have that to provide. So they’re seeing a different side too, which is good.”

Across town in Gresham, Bieker’s second store is staffed by  long-time  colleague  Dan Bennette. He’s also spent his life working in Oregon’s cluster of footwear businesses. And like Bieker, he was lured out of state to a company that promptly laid him off. So he came back, but it’s been tough.

Dan Bennette: “In our industry it’s largely been dead. There’s no footwear management positions anywhere. I look regularly but there’s just nothing there.”

So at the moment he’s working for Bieker — for free.

Dan Bennette: “Victor and I have worked together. This now is the third time. And I believe in what Victor is doing. It just is going to take a little time getting the business up and running so I’m helping Victor do that.”

Kristian: “How long can you afford to do that? You’re looking for work? Are you getting some money from the state to help you do that?”

Dan Bennette: “Let’s just say it’s starting to get a little skinny. Hopefully things will start picking up here and we’ll start getting a paycheck.”

Ultimately, Bieker hopes to win the support of customers like Jay Main, the retired concrete worker.

Although he didn’t buy any boots today, Main says he’ll be back because he believes in buying local.

Jay Main: “No matter what I’m doing I try to do that. Because I want that business there. It’s convenient right, it’s there, so I try to support my little local businesses.”

The hope is that Bieker Boots will gradually develop a local following and the two footwear veterans can open a few more stores around the Pacific Northwest.

And economists will tell you that that’s exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that’ll create jobs and drag Oregon and the nation out of recession.

Next up — finding the right balance when it comes to training for future jobs.

As our “Getting Back to Work” special continues, we look at people who are re-tooling for the job market by way of the classroom. But what should they be learning? As Rob Manning reports from Southwest Washington, students and teachers are looking for a balance, between learning in a classroom – and learning on the job.

Richard Barrett is one of hundreds of new students at Clark College’s brand-new Columbia Technical Center in Vancouver. Since Barrett lost his job at Oregon Steel Mills, he’s considered every conceivable opening.

Richard Barrett: “From sales, to you name it, I was looking at anything that was paying a good amount of money, and then finally I decided, I need to specialize in something.”

Richard Barrett is far from alone. Clark County’s 14 percent unemployment rate has driven a 45 percent increase in the college’s enrollment. Many of those workers-turned-students are early in their careers, like Barrett. Classmate, Mitchell Uskoski is 22, and was working on power lines until last fall. He really liked the job.

Mitchell Uskoski: “We had a big storm, you know poles snapped off, it was great – it was probably a week after I’d started, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. We were cruising around – of course, I was the grunt on the ground – but I felt like I was part of bringing people back their power, you know. I don’t know – it’s like nothing else. It makes you feel like your job really means something.”

Both Richard Barrett and Mitchell Uskoski are finishing up a one-year certificate program at Clark College. It’s designed to prepare graduates for stable, hands-on work at an electric utility.

Jim Malinowski: “It’s not going to be outsourced, that’s right.”

Jim Malinowski now runs the program. He’s retired after years at Pacific Gas & Electric in California. He says it’s reliable employment. But the work is changing.

Jim Malinowski: “When I started with the company, with PG&E, we had almost no monitoring control equipment. Everything was manual. Now, you can sit in a control room, and operate devices from a computer. The modern control room looks nothing like the old-style control rooms.”

Malinowski says he started the program at the request of Bonneville Power Administration – because the agency couldn’t find enough qualified workers.

So, now, the holy grail for finishing the Power Utilities’ class is an apprenticeship job at BPA. Thirty-three year-old Richard Barrett learned a few weeks ago, he got a spot.

Richard Barrett: “It’s a year-long process from the time you start your application to the interview process, to actually getting accepted. So I was extremely excited, not only for me, but for my family.”

Barrett could’ve decided to spend the next four years in college. Instead, he’ll spend that time as a paid apprentice. He’ll get to know well the dials and switches on these pale green walls.

PJ LeCompte: “So we’re in the operator training simulator…”

PJ LeCompte is a technical training manager with BPA, working out of Vancouver. 

He says in a good year, the agency might bring in 25 or 30 apprentices to show them how to manage a power failure.

This year, LeCompte says BPA’s tight budget meant only 11 apprentices will start this summer. And as Clark College student, Mitchell Uskoski points out, apprenticeships are hard to find in other parts of the industry as well.

Mitchell Uskoski: “Work’s really slow, on the construction side, I think there’s  like 90 apprentices that are laid off right off. The competition is really stiff.”

But there’s another route to training for the job. It involves less hands-on training for a job today, and maybe more classroom time that focuses on skills for tomorrow.

That’s why Jim Malinowski at Clark College might advise aspiring utility workers like Uskoski to stay in school, if he can’t find one of those rare apprenticeships. He is currently working on a second year for his Power Utilities’ program. One strand would focus on the more flexible and responsive electric grid of the future.

Jim Malinowski: “Utilities have very sophisticated monitoring and control systems that have to be installed and maintained. So the intent of the program would be to provide training for people to do that kind of work.”

Student Mitchell Uskoski say he’d consider a second year, if it would help get him a job.

Industry trainers, like PJ LeCompte, aren’t sure that it would.

LeCompte says utilities want workers who know the basics and are eager to learn. But he says knowing too much can be a problem.

PJ LeCompte: “It is easier to train someone from day one, than it is to bring in someone who has a lot more training because once you learn something, it takes an effort to un-learn it.”

LeCompte concedes that utility jobs are hard to get. Utility officials say many workers are old enough to retire – but haven’t, because they’re worried that they can’t afford to.

But an economic recovery could prompt retirements, which would in turn, open a career ladder for qualified trainees. Mitchell Usoski will have a one year certificate to show a prospective employer. He says he hope it’ll help him move up.

Mitchell Uskoski: “The groundman is at the bottom of the pole, or at the bottom of the totem pole. And the lineman is kind of the king. And that’s kind of where I want to be.”

For some, re-training may be the answer to finding longterm employment. But for others, the best way to stay employable is to find a niche that will survive — even in the down times. From Bend, David Nogueras reports on one couple that found businesses that have flourished in the recession.

It’s Friday morning at Rescue Moderne Consignment and things here are bustling. Maybe it’s the dance music that has shoppers in the mood. More likely though, it’s the eclectic mix of new and used clothes and accessories bringing in street traffic. 

Angela Dietrich
Angela Dietrich: Her niche business is thriving

Customers want to know what came in overnight.  Rescue is a consignment store that has the feel of a boutique.

Angela Dietrich first opened her store in 2006. Not too long after that, the  housing market imploded. Dietrich, like everyone in Central Oregon was anxious about her business.  But then she started to crunch the numbers.

Angela Dietrich: “The worse the economy got, the better our numbers kept getting.  So it was a really, really tiny space but we just kept consistently growing no matter what. And so that’s what gave us the confidence after three years in that location to move to a location this size which is almost double what we had before.  It’s about 1800 square feet.”

The collapse of the housing market hit Bend particularly hard. Jobs that paid well in construction and wood product manufacturing dried up along with the demand for housing. Unemployment here hovers at more than 14 percent. 

Which is why it’s curious that there are business that are actually expanding here.

Just a few miles outside of town, Angela’s husband, Alan Dietrich is working on an expansion project of his own. He’s a national sales manager, and a partner in Bendistillery.  It’s a small batch distiller that makes boutique spirits.  At the distillery site, Alan walks past a giant 1000 gallon blending tank sitting on a trailer waiting to be unloaded.

Alan Dietrich: “So let me show you what we’ve got going on here…so this is a 24 acres, it was a working little ranch like forever and we purchased it two years ago and are converting it into a distillery, office sampling room and an organically certified farming operation….”

Alan says that Bendistillery will use that farmland to grow some of the grains and juniper berries used in its various spirits.

So how is it that these two businesses are thriving in a crummy economy?

Well, the easy way to tell this story goes something like this.

In a down economy, people are on the lookout for better deals on items like clothing and  depending how bad things are, they could probably use a stiff drink as well. So the Dietrichs seem to have found the right niche.

Angela Dietrich: “Yeah it’s funny because people ask us that, that we’re lucky that we’re in two recession-proof businesses.”

Alan Dietrich: “I think like you point out the economy certainly is a factor in how good the businesses have been doing but there are a lot of other factors that are contributing to how well these businesses have been doing.”

In the case of the distillery, Alan says he believes small batch distilling is a concept that’s still in its infancy.  And in spite of the downturn, he says there’s enormous potential for growth.

Dietrich says over the last 10 years the company has managed to increase it’s sales on an average of 25 percent each year.  Alan attributes much the distillery’s success to the fact that it’s an Oregon-based company.

Alan Dietrich: “We’re in a part of the country that not only seems to foster real entrepreneurial spirit but we have a population that really appreciates the local concept and seeks it out.”

That “go-local” philosophy is also something that Angela’s store seems to have tapped into.  Besides the consignment aspect of the business, the store also features clothing and jewelry from local artists.

Angela Dietrich: “For us they’re like a bunch of our kids that we want to see do really, really well.  Anything we can do to promote them.  We don’t charge them any fees and we promote them as much as we can.”

As she looks though the racks, Angela shows off the work of some of the featured artists.

Angela Dietrich:” This is a line called dirty snowflake they go and rescue the scraps and turn it into clothing.”

Reuse and recycling she says is central to store’s philosophy.  Dietrich says her customers respond to financial realties, but she believes that when consumers make ecologically sound choices, the habit will stick.

Angela Dietrich: “I think right now it’s more of an economic choice with the luxury of hey I’m doing something good for the environment added on but I think as soon as the economy switches around it will be the other way around.”

These two entrepreneurs think economic recovery might not be too off. And though they have been fortunate enough to be among businesses that are doing well, they recognize that the community still has challenges to overcome.

Alan Dietrich: “I think most of the people here have found their steady state.  People are adapting.  Certainly a lot of people that are struggling and their has been some horror stories but the majority of the town has just adjusted their lifestyle to adapt to the new economy.  Cause the people that live here really want to be here and it’s never been a place that you come to get rich. It’s a place that you come to enjoy life”.

Alan Dietrich says when he came here 20 years ago, it wasn’t to get rich.  He came here to ski.  But with the two businesses booming, life here has been pretty enjoyable.

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