Uncovering Natural Resource Sector Job Opportunities

Uncovering Natural Resource Sector Career Paths
Washington's educators are often unaware of viable career paths in the state's natural resource sector. That is according to proponents of SB 5285, who argue the bill would address that issue by surveying employers and businesses in that industry to fill worker shortages. Photo: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

This week, the Washington State House Higher Education Committee passed a workforce study bill to better align the state’s teachers with the workforce needs of natural resource sector employers. SB 5285 cleared the Senate floor earlier this month unanimously, and would require the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (WTB) to gather information from employers in that industry to determine how to address worker shortages.

Industry stakeholders and bill proponents believe the study would determine how to equip educators with more accurate information about potential career paths in those sectors, so they can inform students of those opportunities.

Informing Students Of Job Opportunities

Natural resource jobs are valuable both for Washington’s economic vitality and for the hundreds of thousands of employed residents working in the industry. Washington’s forest product companies bring in $28 billion annually, according to the Senate bill report. Also, an estimated 160,000 people work in the state’s $49 billion food and agriculture industry, and thousands more work in specialties such as salmon restoration or sustainable forestry.

State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17) is prime sponsor, and the sole cosponsor is State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1).

“Our concerns are that students have the information and opportunities in front of them to make the best decision moving forward in their career or vocational careers,” Wilson told colleagues during March 1 executive session on the Senate floor. “But in order to make those wise decisions and for our educators to know what those options can be, we need to determine what jobs are even available.”

Educating The Educators

The Senate passed the measure in a 49-0 vote, and sent the bill to the House Higher Education Committee.

“There’s a whole lot of jobs out there…and so that’s what this study is for…to let the educators know what they are so that we can prepare (students) by having classes that will get them there,” Wilson told the committee on March 15.

Last month, State Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40) sponsored an amendment later adopted into the bill adding outdoor recreation to the list of surveyed sectors. On February 22, Kathryn Kurtz, Executive Director at the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), told the Senate Ways and Means Committee the measure would allow PEI to deliver “locally relevant career-connected learning” for Washington students, and better direct K-12 educators to better help youth understand the middle-skill employment paths.

SB 5285 would direct WTB to conduct a workforce assessment to gauge current and future employment and workforce demands for skilled mid-level employees in the agriculture, natural resource, environmental, and outdoor recreation sectors. From the five state regions defined in the study, WTB must identify and interview a representative sample of employers to determine their expectations for filling skilled worker positions. The study must also evaluate food and fiber processing jobs.

By October 18, 2018, the WTB must provide the legislature with the report, along with recommendations on:

-using sources of the most representative information from those sectors to inform educators and counselors

-enhancing available data on skilled workforce needs

-determining what specific skills would advance worker productivity in those sectors

-expanding work into entry-level and advanced-level jobs

The bill’s companion, HB 1404 is sponsored by State Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36). That measure cleared the Higher Education Committee, but stalled in Appropriations last month.

Highlighting Washington’s ‘Great Jobs’

During March 15 public testimony on SB 5285, Tarleton asked Wilson if she would be open to adding an amendment which would require a collaboration with the State Board of Career and Technical Colleges.

She argued that “they have many programs to link employment opportunities to the schools and colleges that are offering the areas of studies” covered in the measure.

Wilson replied that she would be open to looking into it, but cited concern about keeping the bill’s fiscal costs down.

On Wednesday, March 22, SB 5285 was voted out of the House Higher Education Committee in a 9-0 vote.

During executive session, Tarleton told colleagues, “On this committee, we have taken on the role of looking at workforce development and workforce opportunities…what we do know is this: we have some great jobs in this state and these areas of job opportunities need to be better understood by all of the employees out there. We will take a look at this study and see what it tells us.”

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