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Employers demand skilled workers

During good times earlier this decade, local employers had trouble finding qualified workers.

Despite cutbacks and slow economic sledding, some Rogue Valley employers still are searching in vain.

The region's business leaders say simple things are missing, such as written and spoken English skills, communication skills, basic and mid-level math, critical thinking and problem solving, basic computer skills and a strong work ethic.

"We're looking for workers with basic, personal job skills that can step up to the challenges of a technology that changes every day," said Artha Nafie, quality and regulatory affairs manager at medical film manufacturer Carestream Health in White City.

The Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council gathered more than 50 business, community and agency leaders at the Medford Library on Thursday.

Even with Jackson County unemployment hovering at 14 percent, one lingering element facing employers is having to reject applicants who fail basic screening.

"Employers told us easily 50 percent of applicants fail to meet requirements involving (criminal) convictions or drug requirements," said Ron Fox, executive director at Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. "It's not expected to go away, but the thing that surprised me is that I thought (the percentage) would go down with all the people in the unemployed ranks."

Aside from character issues, the Rogue Valley Workforce Development Council's PowerUp Academy, allowing companies to enroll workers in specific training programs, has provided across-the-board skills improvement.

PowerUp was launched last January providing one-day and half-day training in varying areas such as computer skills, forklift safety, First-Aid and CPR, and leadership. Some 870 employees from 149 companies have participated in 93 training workshops.

"We feel we have created some incredible momentum with PowerUp," said program coordinator Stacie Grier. "The feedback we've had so far from businesses is that they realize this is the time to skill-up their staff and make them more productive. Clearly, that's what is going to pull us out of the recession in this region."

Nafie said developing the right mind set is critical to sustaining local manufacturing.

"I think parents and students are looking at what they perceive to be standard manufacturing jobs and veering away from them," Nafie said. "There is a misconception that manufacturing is boring and repetitive. There really could be nothing further from the truth. Manufacturers can't do it by themselves. The education (community) needs to listen and we need to speak loudly and clearly to what we need."

Workforce development is a long-term issue for Gary Varney of Varney Manufacturing in Medford, who laid off a third of the company's staff in the past year. "I have an ideal workforce for the moment," said Varney, who was among the employers surveyed by the RVWDC. "Right now, we have the key people to keep this thing going. But in the future, as things heat back up and we need more workers to grow again, it will create some new issues."

Varney is part of an entrepreneurs group that a few years ago had difficulty filling positions.

"When the economy comes back, it's going to get scarce again," Varney said. "The enrollment at Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University has been skyrocketing, but we still could be in the same boat three, four or five years from now."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.