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Rogue Valley workers have their pick of jobs

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Phoenix High School students Estefania Reyes, left, and Melody Ortega participate Wednesday in a Jackson County Fire District No. 3 challenge during the Careers in Gear job fair at The Expo.
Hundreds of careers represented at job fair

The tight labor market is making it tough on Rogue Valley businesses but creating an explosion of job opportunities for workers.

More than 2,500 high school students from Southern Oregon were dazzled by all the choices at the Careers in Gear job fair held at The Expo in Central Point earlier this week.

“There’s so many opportunities. Everyone’s out here trying to help kids find jobs right out of high school. It’s so helpful. They have jobs for everyone under the sun,” said Lauren Hobbs, a student at Hidden Valley High School south of Grants Pass.

Her friend Jennifer Chaffee agreed.

“There’s a lot of variety. Everyone’s trying to help kids get on the right track,” said Chaffee, also of Hidden Valley High School.

Oregon’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.8% in March. Jackson County’s unemployment rate dipped to 4.2%, and Josephine County’s rate fell to 4.8%, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

After unemployment skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers are now nearly as low as they were before the pandemic, when businesses were grappling with a severe labor shortage.

The 11th annual career fair at The Expo changed its focus this year. Before, it was a chance for young high school students, like freshmen, to learn about careers. This year, the event was for high-schoolers of all ages, including those about to graduate and step into the work world, job training programs or college, said event manager Jen Perry of Project Youth+ in Medford and Grants Pass.

The career fair moved from February to April, closer to when students will graduate and start job hunting, she said.

The fair also opened its doors in the late afternoon to adults looking for work or a career change — although with most working-age adults already employed, attendance dropped off steeply during that portion of the career fair.

The fair included 140 exhibits from businesses, nonprofit groups and government agencies all looking to hire workers. The event filled a massive indoor arena at The Expo and overflowed outside.

“I personally think all the health care careers are interesting,” said Hobbs, one of the Hidden Valley High School students.

Students wandered from booth to booth, peppering company representatives with questions.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Kerensa Ritchie, manager of clinical education and development at Providence Medford Medical Center, talks Wednesday with North Medford High School student Juan Gonzalez during the job fair at The Expo.

“People frequently think we’re just doctors and nurses,” said Tara Baker, supervisor of talent acquisition for Asante, which runs three Rogue Valley hospitals and other health care services. “We have a lot of different opportunities. We’re like a city.”

Baker said students asked intelligent questions about jobs from physical therapist to laboratory worker to certified nursing assistant. She said Asante is always hiring, especially now with the tight labor market. Recruiters were at a Southern Oregon University career fair last week, and Asante partners with groups like Pacific Healthcare Training to train and recruit workers such as CNAs.

“It’s definitely competitive. There are a lot of open positions. Health care is really big in our valley. The bigger it gets, the more opportunities there are for people. We have our work cut out for us,” Baker said.

Carol Cortes, a student at Central High School in Medford, said she probably wants to be a nurse and work with babies, including those in neonatal intensive care units. The career fair opened her eyes to other jobs that involve helping people, including paramedic and firefighter.

“I think it’s giving people more options. The ones I found interesting are also about helping people,” Cortes said.

Abigail Scott, a Grayback Forestry wildland firefighter, came to the career fair with her co-workers to share her experiences with students. She’s relatively new, having started in November 2021.

“I wanted to try something different that was outdoors and unorthodox and get my boots dirty,” Scott said. “A lot of the people we’re recruiting are doing it to pay for college. They work summers. A lot of kids are super excited about fire science. It’s really cool to see that spark of interest in a lot of kids. For kids who aren’t sure about college, it can be a transition period where they make money and get experience in something useful in the real world.”

Lance Woters, a Grayback Forestry manager, said the company keeps about 200 experienced workers year-round, then boosts its staff to about 800 for the wildfire season. In the off-season, crews work on fuels-reduction projects to reduce fire danger.

Jobs include entry level to experienced firefighters, engine bosses who are in charge of a fire engine and crew, tree fallers, heavy equipment operators, water truck drivers, mobile shower unit operators, office staff and drone pilots. Everyone from college students to school bus drivers help fill the summer ranks, Woters said.

Grayback Forestry has certified teachers who train people, or if workers need to be sent off-site, the company pays for the training. Firefighters get to travel when the company sends crews to help fight wildfires in other states, said Woters, who has traveled as far away as Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

“It’s neat to get the tour and see other parts of the country you might not otherwise see,” he said.

Medford police officers were among those representing local law enforcement agencies at the career fair. Students stopped by individually or in groups to learn more about the job.

“A lot of them are asking how to be a cop and what’s my favorite thing about being in law enforcement. I get to help my community and see my community grow,” said MPD Police Officer Alex Forsythe.

He said the worst part of the job is different for everyone, but he misses spending time with his family on holidays when he has to work.

MPD Sgt. Mark Cromwell said the police department is aggressively recruiting new people. Every year, another batch of police retire, creating openings for new hires. MPD hires people for a variety of positions, including police officers, community service officers and staff for the records division.

Cromwell said television shows have created a stereotype that police spend most of their time running after suspects.

“We do a lot of community outreach, working to solve problems in the community and getting people resources. It’s not so much chasing people,” he said.

Mak Harris, a student at the Eagle Ridge High School charter school in Klamath Falls, spent a lot of time talking to police at the career fair.

“I’ve been very interested in law enforcement for over 10 years. My grandfather was a sheriff for Modoc County. I wasn’t alive then, but I heard his impact on the community was amazing,” said Harris, who is already taking Klamath Community College courses and plans to attend SOU.

Harris said the police officers all seemed to have a common interest in helping the community and being able to drive around and talk to people. People in law enforcement can specialize in different areas, such as computer crimes, Harris learned.

Harris said the adults at the career fair were honest about the ups and downs of different jobs. An underwater welder, for example, talked about the challenges of the job as well as the benefits.

“People are giving information in the right way. It’s not all fun and games. Students can find out, ‘Maybe this career is not for me.’ That transparency helps people find jobs they’ll really be interested in,“ Harris said.

Students learned about jobs they might not have considered. Faced with a severe labor shortage, retirement communities and nursing homes were out in force at the career fair.

Ian Evans, a young man who is campus events coordinator for the Rogue Valley Manor retirement community, said he started out as a dining room server, advanced to dining room supervisor and then landed his current position.

“My favorite part about it is seeing all the smiles we get when we put on parties,” he said.

Evans said he enjoys working with retirees.

“They’re fun. A lot of them are young-spirited. Really intelligent, smart people live up there,” he said of the hilltop retirement community overlooking Medford. “We have doctors, scientists, teachers, movie producers.”

The construction industry was another sector well-represented at the career fair.

Asa Mountain of South Medford High School talked to a woman from the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute about a carpenter apprenticeship. He was a bit surprised to hear her thoughts on the most important characteristics of a successful construction industry worker.

“You have to have experience with waking up and getting to a job on time. You need a reliable car,” Mountain said. “I’m even more interested now after talking to her.”

Adroit Construction Vice President Travis Christian mirrored that advice, telling students being reliable and hard-working are key.

Robert Coplen, a project manager for Adroit, said curiosity is another key to success. Curious people improve their skills faster, and they’re less accident-prone because they understand the ramifications of their actions on different parts of a project.

Christian said employees have the opportunity to work their way up from laborer to manager. Adroit tries to attract and retain workers by creating an environment where people can succeed, feel fulfilled and earn competitive pay.

“The job market’s been strong over the last 10 years. Every contractor in the valley is looking for skilled labor. It’s still very much an employee’s market. We’re all fighting for the same human,” Christian said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.