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Industrial manufacturers struggle to find workers

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Using torches to cut metal is one of the skills taught at PCCs Swan Island Training Center. The school is located in the Vigor Industrial Portland shipyard. “We need technicians,” says Tom Hickman, Vice President of Oregon Iron Works. “We need fitters, and welders, inspectors and machinists.”

It’s a common refrain amongst Oregon’s industrial employers. Blue-collar tradespeople are hard to find. While there are plenty of applicants, very few are qualified and certified. If there’s a cap on the growth of heavy industry in our region, it’s likely going to be from a lack of a properly-trained workforce.

The jobs can provide wages sufficient to support a family from almost day one on the job.

“If you want to work here, you can make a good living,” says Hickman. Starting pay for a welder is about $16 hour, but it can quickly rise depending on experience and certifications.

“This is not a glamour job, but it is very rewarding work,” Hickman says. “People go home with a sense of pride with what they’ve done and what they’ve built and it’s a fabulous feeling to see something come to completion.” For many employees of Oregon Iron Works, they can enjoy that feeling by simply stepping onto a Clackamas-built Portland Streetcar.

“The trades build the infrastructure,” says PCC welding instructor Mike Rasmussen. Rasmussen operates PCC’s Swan Island Training Center, which is located in Vigor Industrial’s Portland shipyard. Vigor is one of several Portland manufacturers to link up with a training program in an attempt to create a qualified workforce.

For four days each week, two shifts of students fill the center learning welding, industrial safety, and fabrication skills. For students such as 46-year old Sherrie Winkler, the dream is to open their own business, for others a job in the adjacent shipyard is the goal.

“Students come to me never having done anything remotely like this,” says Rasmussen. “They leave with the opportunity to make $16 an hour starting pay,” adding “this is a job you can take anywhere in the world.”

Many cite the elimination of public school education in the trades as the root cause of the worker scarcity.

“I think the schools are doing a disservice to students by not offering trades education” says Rasmussen.

Oregon Iron Works has been working with groups including the Manufacturing 21 coalition and Portland’s ADX Center to promote the trades, and Hickman has one final pitch for careers in the trades: “Earn a living, a good living, and you get to go home without a whole lot to worry about.”