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Business | Economy

Oregon Working To Keep Unemployed High-Tech Workers

Anyone who turns up at a job center in Oregon will get help looking for work.  But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports some people are likely to get more help than others.

At the Work Source Oregon job center in Tualatin, row upon row of people sit at cubicles. They’re laid-off construction workers, accountants and cashiers. And they’re hunched over computers searching for a job.

Steve Garlow used to install kitchens in high-end RVs. He says there don’t seem to be any jobs out there.

Steve Garlow: “It’s pretty tough market condition when people can’t afford loans, the banks can’t give out. So it kind of triggers a whole thing.”

Garlow has been unemployed all year and is beginning to look out of state for work. If he’s successful and moves away, politicians aren’t going to worry too much, because there are lots of people who can install kitchens in Oregon.

But Mark Ward is a different matter. He’s a high-tech engineer. And for the last 20 years he’s developed new computer chips and guided them through the highly technical manufacturing process.

Mark Ward: “I’ve been unemployed since the end of May. I actually moved to Oregon from the UK 10-years ago when the high-tech boom was kind of starting in Oregon.”

He’s on a visa that  allows engineers from overseas to get a green card. And John Tortorici, of the Oregon Bioscience Association, says he’s the kind of guy the state needs to keep.

John Tortorici: “Oregon is continuing to try to strive to be an innovation economy. Engineers, project managers what have you are the front-line soldiers in our battle … for innovation if you will. So it’s good for our state to keep them here.”

But Ward’s not having much luck finding work and he’s considering  moving.

Mark Ward: “All the companies that I’ve been contacting in Oregon are not hiring. There’s job freezes in fact there are still lay-offs going on in the company that I worked for has had a lay-off since I got laid-off in May. There are jobs available throughout the country. Ideally we’d like to stay in Oregon. We like Oregon. So if we could we’d stay but if needs be then, you have to do what you have to do.”

Those are sentiments that send chills down the spine of local economic development types.

In fact, $130,000 has been set aside to try and keep people like Ward in Oregon by retraining them for other high-tech careers – like in the bioscience industry.

Dan Hill: “My name is Dan Hill and I’m with the Oregon Bioscience Association.Thank you for attending this morning’s orientation for the bioscience foundation’s program…."

On a recent morning in Beaverton, Peter Rachor of the University of Portland addresses dozens of out-of-work engineers and project managers in a lecture hall.

They’re here to apply for a new training program – one that could lead to an internship and a job with local bioscience companies and research colleges.  It falls to Rachor to sell them on a new career in bioscience.

Peter Rachor:  “There’s a more than 32 percent growth rate in the industry here in Oregon. So unlike the semi-conductor industry, and some of the other industries you may be from. This is an industry that’s still experiencing considerable growth, not only nationally, but particularly here in Oregon.”

He tells them how the bioscience sector is more stable than the semi-conductor industry; how there are about 13,000 people employed locally; and how they earn $100,000 a year or more if they have a PhD.

And in Mark Ward’s case, the message seems to have worked.

Mark Ward: “This is interesting to me. It’s a different area. Especially if it’s something that would grow within Oregon, it would be interesting.”

This pilot project, funded by both state and federal stimulus money, aims to offer about 30 internships— and some of those could turn into jobs.