Sen. Murray hosts listening session on workforce at EDASC

Sen. Murray hosts listening session on workforce at EDASC Main Photo

1 Mar 2023

News, Worforce

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray hosted a listening session on workforce issues at the EDASC office in February. She heard from leaders in business, industry and education, each sharing their observations on how to strengthen our workforce and how those gathered around the table are already working together.

Those participating in the roundtable were Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an economist with the Washington Employment Security Department; Dr. Chris Villa, president of Skagit Valley College; Lynette Brower, director of Northwest Career & Technical Academy; Leslie Smith, owner of EDCO Inc.; Viry Delgado, owner of COA Mexican Eatery; and Nikki Wegner, CEO of Chinook Enterprises. EDASC's Economic Development Manager for Strategic Projects Aaron Weinberg moderated the roundtable.

Participants in the roundtable were invited by EDASC for their experiences as small business leaders or their efforts in workforce development. And in the case of labor economist Vance-Sherman, she was able to help tell the story of Skagit County’s unemployment rate and overall labor profile.

One important consideration Vance-Sherman pointed out is the geographic spread of the county, spanning east to west with Interstate 5 at its center. Many county residents already have a commute from locations such as Anacortes or Concrete before they even get to I-5, and people seem to be less inclined to travel further north or south into larger metropolitan areas to seek work. 

“We’re always the highest unemployment rate in the neighborhood,” she said of the county, but the numbers are improving. “We are back on a growth trajectory.”

Employers share concerns around workforce

The employers represented at the roundtable, manufacturers Smith and Wegner, and restaurateur Delgado, have all had challenges keeping current employees and recruiting new ones since the pandemic.

Reasons include changes in circumstance during the pandemic, unwillingness to meet vaccination requirements, and a general sense of prioritizing personal life above work that is different from past generations.

Workforce shortages are hurting businesses’ bottom lines. Smith from manufacturer EDCO said she recently had to turn down government contract work with the Navy because she could not guarantee adequate workforce to complete the project on time.

“We need our shipyards healthy,” she said, not only as a source of family-wage jobs but also in the interest of national security.

Wegner said her organization, Chinook Enterprises, went from 90 employees at the start of the pandemic to just 36 employees, which she largely attributed to drops in production at Boeing, which purchases assembled goods from Chinook. By February 2023, the employee count had crept up to 50, but it is hardly the rebound Wegner had hoped for. 

Sen. Murray asked the employers if childcare is a barrier to finding and keeping workers. The answer was a resounding yes. 

Additionally, Vance-Sherman said many workers are also tasked with elder care. The sandwich generation has unique family caregiving concerns that also put a strain on workforce.

“Elder care is also contributing to the long-term and middle-term employment crunch,” she said.

Sen. Murray commented on family care, saying the issue has to be part of the national conversation instead of something families feel like they must navigate on their own.

“We can't continue pretending it's their problem,” she said. “It's our problem.”

Educators share efforts to strengthen school to work pathway

As with so many circumstances, the disparities in education were brought to the forefront during the pandemic. 

Educators are tackling issues such as bridging the gap between grades 12-14 and work, as well as equitable access to higher education. 

NCTA's Brower said she has seen many of her students struggle to make the transition from community or technical college to the workforce with a diploma or certificate.

“Why are kids not getting a two-year degree?” she wondered.

Digging into this question she said she noticed students are often getting stuck on passing required courses such as English 101. One way to combat this challenge is to offer contextualized English 101, which meets the goals of the English course using subject matter relevant to the degree program.

The other challenge is the need for additional career and technical education (CTE) offerings. Brower is currently working to obtain funding for a new skills center in Whatcom County to expand the CTE programs offered in the region.

Skagit Valley College’s President Villa says they are beginning to see an increase in enrollment over the pandemic years and hope to see that continue. SVC is bringing more skilled workforce programs to the college, such as the new bachelor’s degree program in early childhood education targeted to start in the 2024-2025 school year.

Villa says he also recognizes that some students don't have the time or money to access higher education outside the county. This is another reason SVC is offering more technical and four-year degrees to the college, including a dental therapy program and a bachelor's degree in IT.

With time, these programs will help meet the demand for skilled workers, but in some cases those new workers are still years away from the workforce. Since workforce was identified as a need by Skagit County employers through a survey EDASC conducted in 2021, the organization has been partnering with industry and education to fill that gap. To learn about EDASC’s efforts to meet workforce challenges, read more here

Sen. Murray shows interest in Nivati wellness app

During the roundtable discussion, employers shared a new tool available to Skagit County small businesses, the Nivati mental health and wellness app.
Offered to Skagit County businesses with 75 employees or fewer by EDASC, the app delivers each participating employee access via the app or computer to six hours of counseling by licensed professionals along with fitness and wellness resources. The program was made available through American Rescue Plan Act funds passed through from the county. Sen. Murray was interested to learn about the app as well as hear from employers who said it's already making a difference for themselves and their employees.

Restaurant owner Viry Delgado said during the pandemic she felt that she needed to mother many of her employees. After introducing the app to them, “I do see they are more confident in themselves,” she said.

Sen. Murray asked several questions about the service and acknowledged the need for more mental health support.