Public-private partnership makes quick work of Bellingham firm’s jobs need

In spring 2010, HeathTecna’s human resources director Laura Henderson had a nearly impossible task in front of her.

New production contracts for the Bellingham-based manufacturer of passenger aircraft interiors were booming, and Henderson needed to hire more people – a lot more.

HeathTecna needed to recruit, hire and train enough new workers take its employee base from around 185 people to more than 300, all within about a month.

“That couldn’t be done by myself,” Henderson said. “We needed to formulate a team.”

The firm needed more than just workers. It needed skilled hires able to read blueprints, calculate mathematics and get quickly up-to-speed on the computer software HeathTecna used for its manufacturing process.

Henderson decided to reach out to a coalition of government, nonprofit and educational groups to develop a program that would help her reach her company’s employment needs.

With collaboration from the Northwest Economic Council, the Northwest Workforce Council and the Washington State Department of Commerce, HeathTecna created a pre-employment training program that not only met the company’s immediate need, but in the two years since has hired and trained more than 600 new employees for the Bellingham firm.

Gary Smith, regional manager for the Northwest Workforce Council, said HeathTecna’s situation is an example of how even if there are large numbers of available workers, it doesn’t automatically mean employers will start hiring, especially for employers requiring workers with specific skills.

“You hear over and over and over again that employers aren’t able to find workers with the skill sets they need,” Smith said. “It’s hard for people to understand if you can have such a high unemployment rate, why aren’t those people working? But what the employers are saying is they don’t have the skills that I need to make my operation run.”

Smith said the successful collaborative project would likely be used as a model for other companies in the future also desperate for large numbers of new workers.

Efforts lauded as job rate steadies

In November 2011, the training program received special recognition as a recipient of the Governor’s Best Practice Award, which recognizes programs and projects that create jobs and economic activity in the state while at the same time giving new workers the training they need to land living-wage jobs.

“By introducing our unemployed to our companies seeking additional talent, we’re helping our economic recovery two-fold,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said after the award announcment. “We’re putting our unemployed back to work, while ensuring our companies have the workforce needed to succeed and expand.”

Washington’s unemployment rate has dropped significantly in the past year, but in recent months has remained at about 8 percent.

The rate reached 10 percent in October 2009 after steady spikes in jobless numbers each month since February of that year, when economists say the recession first began to impact Washington workers.

The state has remained mostly on par with national jobless numbers in 2012, according to an April report from the Employment Security Department.

Manufacturers, particularly aerospace products and parts makers such as HeathTecna, have been at the head of Washington’s job growth.

Piecing together the process

At the start of its training program, HeathTecna ran two weeklong training sessions each month. Potential new employees went through 40 hours of training in eight-hour daily sessions.

From start to finish, workers could be on the production floor in less than a month, Henderson said.

Due to a drop in its current employment need, the company is now running just one session per month as the program continues moving forward.

Smith said a major hurdle organizers managed to clear was securing waivers for trainees who were collecting unemployment, which allowed them to continue receiving benefits even if they didn’t have additional time outside of training to actively seek jobs.

“That made a big difference on people’s willingness to sit in a classroom unpaid for two weeks,” he said. “They didn’t need to be out hitting the bricks looking for work.”

Henderson said it was great to have nonprofit entities and government officials be able to step in and handle such red-tape issues.

Before enrolling in the sessions, trainees are put through a pre-screening process—the same process HeathTecna uses for all potential new hires—including drug tests and criminal background checks.

Trainees go through the same process again if they are later offered a job.

Getting work is no guarantee 

Henderson said there are usually 30 to 35 people in each session, and HeathTecna expects at least 80 percent of the trainees in each one to finish the training program.

At the very end, trainees are given a test to assess what they’ve learned.

HeathTecna selects which ones will be given jobs based on their attendance in training and how well they acclimate to the demands of the company’s production process.

There is no guarantee people will be offered a jobs, even if they complete the program.

The company funds the training through grants from the federal Workforce Investment Act, which it is required to match with its own money.

Smith said he thought the most unique aspect of the program was the collaboration between public and private entities to create a solution that would benefit everyone.

“This company is a job generator in our community,” Smith said. “We had a business with a big need, and we looked at our capacities in the community to see which components of that need we could meet. It was a clear need, so it gave us all a common goal.”

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