Given a choice between a high-priced degree leading to a field with dubious employment prospects or pursuing a longtime interest, Daniel Bohn didn't need a lot of prodding to enter Rogue Community College's Automotive Technology program.
"I've been working on cars, and with my dad on different projects, pretty much my whole life," the 20-year-old Ashland resident said. "I had general knowledge about how everything worked, but I needed more specific technical and mechanical understanding."
Graduates tracked Average annual income
Manufacturing 25 $31,430
Electronic 36 $45,731
Dental assistant 13 $25,520
Apprenticeships 65 $41,836
Occupational skills training 35 $19,111
Technical education 7 $34,849
Automotive 32 $30,301
The challenge for Bohn and others entering — or re-entering — the workforce is to match their passion and skills with employer need and consumer demand.
RCC, with multiple campuses and outposts in Jackson and Josephine counties, has long provided technical and manufacturing training at its White City campus. It upped the ante when it ramped up its medical-related allied health program, designed to prepare hundreds of students to fill positions created to comply with Affordable Care Act requirements.
In the past five years, enrollment in its 70 career and technology programs has grown 79 percent. A recent report highlighting RCC's manufacturing, electronic, dental assistant, apprenticeship, occupational skills and technical programs reveals 213 students tracked by the school now earn an average of nearly $36,000 a year.
The average annual income for 32 recent automotive program graduates tracked by the college is more than $30,300.
Products of the RCC program have no problem landing a job, said Paul Boothroyd, who was a shop foreman at Jim Sigel Automotive before stepping into the classroom. Graduates of the two-year program start out making about $28,000 annually, but Boothroyd said there are auto technicians employed by local firms making more than $100,000 in the Rogue Valley.
Students entering RCC's automotive program range from knowing little more than how to put gas in the tank to knowing enough to be dangerous.
"We actually prefer ones that don't know much about cars so we can start at the beginning and teach them correctly," Boothroyd said.
Bohn is balancing classroom requirements and auto shop labs with an eye toward transitioning into a full-time career within the next year. Immersed in a world of suspensions, steering, onboard computer systems, manual and automatic transmissions, he is two-thirds through the program and looking forward to a spring internship.
"It gives you a good feel for what to expect when you go into a real shop in the real world when you actually start working," Bohn said.
The program's students range in age from 15 to 51 and include two women.
Rae Colson of Medford was at a crossroads when her family moved away when she turned 18. She needed transportation, and a friend offered her a 1983 Mazda pickup truck that needed work.
She tore the Mazda down and put it back together in five weeks.
"It got me thinking," Colson said. "If I love doing this so much, why don't I do it for a living? I see a lot of people who hate what they're doing; they do it because they get paid. I ask them: Why don't you do something that you can get paid well and be absolutely passionate about?"
Ever since the timber industry cycled into decline in the 1970s, an array of plans and agencies have developed to retrain displaced workers with varying degrees of success.
The workers' children and grandchildren have been hard-pressed to find jobs with similar buying power.
Jim Fong, executive director at the Medford Job Council office, said it's been a long struggle, but the tide is turning.
"We're making progress at a foundational level," Fong said. "We're developing a capacity building level in ways I have not seen before."
The critical element, he said, is melding kindergarten through college studies together.
"We're at a place where we are building a new bridge," Fong said. "We've got better designing and engineering, but it's not like the systems were dysfunctional."
As employer needs and demands change, both older workers, looking for a new job, and people entering the workforce for the first time can develop skills and gain certification through RCC or professional and trade associations.
Stacie Grier was project manager for Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council's PowerUp Academy for four years. The program lets companies enroll workers in specific training programs, ranging from computer skills and forklift safety skills to first-aid and leadership.
Grier, who became district director for Junior Achievement of Oregon and Southwest Washington last March, suggested there are hurdles for both younger and older job seekers.
Longtime workers who lose their jobs are usually unwilling to accept less pay than what they were making, Grier said.
"I've seen people who worked their way up a company, making $20 to $25 an hour, and then got laid off during the recession," Grier said. "Most people are not going to find a job paying that much. As companies are starting to come back, they are just not paying that as a starting wage — you still have to work your way up. If they (workers) don't have a lot of new and modern technical skills, they are not competitive in the job market."
Workers in their 20s and those on the cusp of joining the workforce have to invest their time in advancing skills as well, Grier said.
"At Junior Achievement, we're exposing them to real careers and helping them understand there aren't jobs out there paying millions of dollars to make video games," Grier said. "But there are a lot of cool jobs using the same skills at places like Motorcycle Superstore or Harry & David."
Fong, along with school leaders in the region, have sought ways to produce top-performing science students.
"We're taking baby steps," he said. "The next step is coordination of career experience."
Oregon Institute of Technology graduates, who could plug into any number of firms in Southern Oregon, often go elsewhere, Fong said.
"They don't know about the jobs here and move away," Fong said.
The idea is to make those firms more visible to students, even before they head off to college.
Fong said developing skilled workers for future jobs involves more than merely upping math and science capabilities.
"There's a big set of challenges," he said. "We didn't fall into this gap overnight and we're not going to climb out quickly. This is a multi-year, if not decade-long, process."