By Nancy Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Economic Council
Across the country, budget cuts, record layoffs and reduced profits have heightened the need for workforce services for both companies and workers. Now, perhaps more than ever, workers must bolster their skill sets or learn new skills in order to find work or make themselves more versatile in their current jobs. Concurrently, many companies are finding they need to address their staffing levels, make cuts and re-delegate employee duties.
This trend holds true for Whatcom County, with unemployment rates up by 3.4 percent this June from the previous year, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department. As of June, local businesses have had to lay off over 930 Whatcom County residents in the past 12 months.
In Whatcom County, workers and employers alike have many local resources they can turn to in these challenging times. The Northwest Workforce Council is one, providing the full spectrum of needs for employers and job seekers through numerous programs, including business consulting, retraining programs, financial assistance, help with job searches, and through WorkSource career centers, which link job seekers with hiring employers.
Struggling companies that have had to make payroll cuts and reorganize the way in which duties are carried out among employees have been turning more and more to this organization. The Council’s responses to business closures and layoffs in 2009 have increased 300 percent over 2008, and the year is not yet over. Additionally, visits to the Council’s WorkSource Northwest career centers are up 75 percent over last year.
On the state level, one successful program run through the Employment Security Department has been the Shared-Work Program, which allows employees whose hours have been cut to collect partial unemployment benefits to replace a portion of their lost wages (Click here for more information).
Workers in Whatcom County in need of retraining or more advanced skills have a multitude of options available to them through Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College, NW Indian College and Western Washington University. Increasingly, the local workforce is turning especially to Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College for their relatively affordable programs that lead directly to professions that offer family-wage salaries and that remain in high demand during an economic downturn, like healthcare jobs. In Whatcom County, the jobs in highest demand are in health services, advanced manufacturing, process technology, marine manufacturing and electro-mechanical technology – all jobs that require some education and training, but less than a four-year bachelor’s degree. Both WCC and BTC have seen record enrollment levels over the past year.
“Bellingham Technical College is experiencing enrollment numbers unprecedented in its history,” said Tom Eckhert, President of Bellingham Technical College. “The vast majority of our programs are full and many have waiting lists. However, the current economic downturn has at least this bright side: people are, in increasing numbers, upgrading their job skills to make themselves more marketable now and to meet the huge workforce demands that will emerge as the economy improves. It is our role to meet the educational needs of individual students and to build a highly trained workforce for local business and industry.”
While there is the possibility that our nation’s economy has hit bottom and may now be on the upswing, it is anticipated that layoffs will continue for many months as struggling companies attempt to repair financial holes left by the recession. Local training programs and academic institutions will continue to play a vital role in the region’s ability to recover and achieve a robust economy driven by a skilled workforce, as will organizations like the Northwest Workforce Council.
“Our region’s workforce development system is a strategic component of economic recovery as well as regional quality-of-life issues,” said Gay Dubigk, Executive Director for the Northwest Workforce Council. “Our system of collaborative partnerships is responding effectively to the current, unprecedented demand for assistance with job loss, job search and occupational training. We are making critically important investments in workers’ skills now to ensure our region’s key sector businesses have the talent available to remain innovative and profitable, and so workers have opportunity for family wage jobs and career growth.”
With the many local educational institutions and organizations like the Northwest Workforce Council, Northwest Economic Council and Center for Economic Vitality, individuals and businesses in our community struggling with the realities of a recession need not feel alone.
Nancy Jordan is the Executive Director for the Northwest Economic Council – Whatcom County. The Council is a private non-profit that provides economic development services for the region, supports local business retention and expansion, serves as the point of contact for relocating businesses and develops long-term economic strategy. Please see www.nwecon.org for more information.