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Other Views: The jobs dilemma

Oregon businesses have difficulty finding qualified workers for almost half their openings, according to an annual report released this week by the Oregon Employment Department. The report, based on surveys of more than 10,000 private employers during 2013, should send a warning to companies, educators and policymakers:

It doesn't matter how much the economy improves if the state can't produce workers who have the skills necessary to fill the jobs produced by economic growth.

Some of the survey results are obvious: Lack of qualified candidates was the most commonly cited reason businesses had trouble filling positions. The number of qualified candidates decreases as pay rises. Jobs requiring related work experience are harder to fill than entry-level positions. Some jobs (about 17 percent) are difficult to fill because workers view the work conditions as undesirable.

But the survey results also offer some less obvious lessons. Here are five:

Government regulations aren't necessary to compel small businesses to improve pay and benefits. The market will force them to do it. The survey showed that businesses with fewer than 20 employees had the most trouble filling positions. Increased pay and benefits could change that equation, but business owners are in a better position than elected officials to determine whether they can offer those carrots to workers and remain profitable.

Economic ills aren't limited to southern and eastern Oregon. Willamette Valley and North Coast employers reported the most difficulty filling open positions. That might, in part, reflect the quality of openings in places like Curry and Harney counties. But it was more sign that Oregon needs to attract jobs and train workers if it wants to boost the economy in counties outside the Portland area.

Schools need to expand vocational and technical education. Some progress has been made in this area. The Career Technical Education Revitalization Grant Fund, established by the Legislature in 2011, has allowed more than 100 Oregon schools to improve career education. But as the economy improves, schools need to accelerate the implementation of courses aimed at those who are unlikely to attain a college degree.

Employers need to earn back workers' trust. During the recession, workers became reluctant to leave good, stable jobs. That makes it hard for businesses to fill positions requiring experience. Jessica Nelson, an economist with the Employment Department, said in the months since the survey workers have begun to show more willingness to change jobs.

Businesses need to take responsibility for some of the training. The annual survey showed that many of the hardest-to-fill jobs lacked a clear educational pathway. In some cases, the necessary training was so specific that it would be hard for high schools or community colleges to design an appropriate educational program. Businesses have to be willing to fill that gap.

Of course, some of the responsibility falls back on workers, too. It's not reasonable to expect high pay, good benefits, weekday-only work hours and a low-pressure work environment. Some of the applicants who turn down jobs because of "unfavorable" work conditions need to reconsider.

In fact, if nothing else, the annual survey should convince employers, workers and educators that they need to collaborate in order to mend the holes that the recession left in Oregon's economy.