In an age of economic uncertainty, it helps to be an optimist. For Terry Corrigan, chair of the board at the Northwest Workforce Council and vice president at Haskell Corp. in Bellingham, watching Whatcom County recover from a national financial crisis and recession has been a gradual process.
But in his mind, there are plenty of reasons to think positive.
The construction executive is entering his second year leading the board of the regional workforce organization, a group that combines perspective from both the public and private sectors to address workforce development issues.
While Whatcom County enjoys a slowly improving employment picture, expanding workforce and declining jobless rate, Corrigan knows that employers and employees must be ready to adapt to new changes and challenges in the professional world.
BBJ: Do you think we should take Whatcom County’s recent decline in unemployment as a sign the economy is improving, or do you think there’s a deeper story behind the numbers?
Corrigan: I think it’s a bit of a muted recovery, but definitely a recovery. In this community, I think there’s a real positive influence on our economy with our proximity to [British Columbia], and I think that will continue to grow.
B.C. has a wealth of natural resources and a lot of energy and precious metal-type resources that are going to continue to be developed. So, that will be good for this economy.
But there’s still some big challenges, not just locally but nationally, in terms of employment and growth.
BBJ: What do see as the major challenge?
Corrigan: For employers, it’s going to come down to the fact that there’s a lot of pressure right now on state programs, in terms of post-secondary education. In training our workforce, I think some of that is going to fall onto employers more so than they have maybe seen in the past.
Certainly [a challenge is] getting our workforce educated and helping people upgrade their skills so they can be more marketable. Some implications related to employees, especially in our locale, is that trying to keep 20-40 year olds in the community is a challenge. Not only because there’s not a lot of opportunities from an employment standpoint, but socially, they seem to be wanting to migrate outside the area.
From an employee standpoint, they’re probably going to have to be willing to relocate in some cases. Until our local economy gets up and humming again, I think there’s going to be some pressure on people to go to where the work is.
In general, I think employees have to be willing to upgrade their skill sets to improve themselves, and there’s opportunities locally here with [Bellingham Technical College] and Whatcom Community College, and certainly Western [Washington University].
BBJ: What’s your advice for companies looking to hire?
Corrigan: I would say they should be open to new employees that aren’t necessarily experienced in their specific industry.
I think we have a lot of prospective employees out there that have more universal skill sets. They have communication skills, and they have an ability to learn.
We [at Haskell] have been looking at different employees recently that haven’t had a background in our business, but they have the attributes we’re looking for.
BBJ: What about advice for people looking for work right now?
Corrigan: As I mentioned, they have to be willing to improve themselves, especially if they’re looking for work in a technical field. In anything to do with science, technology, engineering and math—what’s referred to as STEM—you certainly have to be willing to stay up on the technology.
That usually means getting the current training and certifications, and that takes effort.
But the system is out there for people to be able to do that, locally. Yet there are limitations.
At the Northwest Workforce Council board, we’re hearing often of the challenges that [local workforce training programs] are facing with finances. All the while, they have an increased demand for their services. Classes are full, and they don’t have the resources to expand them.
It’s kind of ironic that at the same time you have this high demand for training, the money’s not there. So, it’s a Catch-22 that the whole system is dealing with right now.
Part of how we deal with that is by networking. That’s one of the things about the Workforce Council board that I find very rewarding.
There’s a lot of different organizations that partner together and there’s a synergy there. Especially in times of strained resources, that’s a plus.
Evan Marczynski, lead reporter for the Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.