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Closing the skills gap

Hayley Taylor might have been written off, with little hope of freeing herself from social assistance.

After the 34-year-old single mother left her caregiver position, she endured six years without a job and little opportunity of landing one until last summer, when she stepped into the Goodwill Job Connection office in Medford.

Taylor has since acquired her GED, picked up job training and now runs a similar Job Connection center in Ashland.

"It was a huge barrier not being able to work for a while," said Taylor, who has two children, including one with spina bifida. "The program helped me get motivated."

People leave jobs for any number of reasons, often in hopes of landing a better one.

If the next position fails to materialize or ends without warning, the future is less certain. And returning to the workforce isn't so easy, especially for those with few marketable skills.

Guy Tauer, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department, said national data underscores the correlation between higher unemployment rates and lower levels of education and lack of skills.

Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 data showed an 8 percent jobless rate for people without high school diplomas and a 5.4 percent rate for high school graduates. The rate improves to 3.8 percent for those with two years of college.

Job seekers who have been out of the workforce face an even tougher go.

"The longer you've been out, the harder it is to get back in with diminishing skills," said Tauer.

"Employers wonder if you've been out for a year and a half, what problems do you have you're not telling them about."

Goodwill Industries of Southern Oregon began offering help to close the skills gap in fall 2012 and opened centers in Ashland and White City this year. Many of the people using those centers are on government assistance and are required to look for employment.

"When the economic crash hit in 2008, over 5 million jobs went away nationwide for people without a college education," said Greg Lemhouse, Goodwill's vice president of workforce development. "Only 1 percent of those jobs have come back, and that leaves a pretty large group of people struggling to find work. It can be burdensome for Ashland and Upper Rogue families to come all the way to our Medford headquarters and then return home for childcare or health care. We felt a need for us to bring services closer to them, and we're finding it's been effective so far."

In essence, Lemhouse said, Goodwill has become the intersection between employees and employers.

"We want to be attuned to what the needs are and how we can adjust," he said. "In reality, it's a moving target with industry changes and what's going on in the economy."

Providing basic skills, Goodwill has placed 389 people in jobs in a six-county area, generating more than $1 million in payroll taxes, Lemhouse said. "We try to avoid temporary jobs, because that contributes to poverty cycle; we're trying to sustain long-term employees."

Goodwill has connections with 277 employers, from mom-and-pops to larger firms. Trainees can work with selected firms for up to 90 days while continuing to collect government benefits. Some get hired on a permanent basis, Lemhouse said. "For others, there isn't a place, but they now have a great reference."

Taylor began her volunteer training in November, obtained her GED in May and has worked with clients since the Ashland office opened in June. From her binder, which presently lists 354 openings, she's channeled 186 clients into jobs ranging from line cooks and dishwashers to retail clerks and factory workers.

"We see anywhere from five to 10 people a day in the summertime," she said. "Usually, they are looking for work and haven't worked for a while and come ask what kind of resources we have. A lot of people have needed help with resumes, cover letters and online applications. I definitely can relate to a lot of the clients that come in, it seems to give them a little hope."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Hayley Taylor
Job coach Shaylene Staten waits for clients at the new Job Connection center at Goodwill in White City. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta