Washington state lawmakers heard from rural employers this week who support a pending proposal to support students to both earn degrees and succeed in high-demand job fields. Proponents say the bill is needed in areas of the state where there are more jobs than skilled workers.
HB 2177 would create the Rural County High Employer Demand Jobs Program to help students earn credentials in high-demand career fields and would provide eligible students tuition and fees equivalent to one year of full-time study at a Community and Technical College (CTC) in all counties except King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, Whatcom, Thurston, Clark, Benton and Spokane.
To qualify, students must be a resident within an eligible county, be enrolled in a high-demand field of study at an approved county’s CTC, and meet other family income and financial aid requirements.
The legislation’s prime sponsor is State Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24), and cosponsors include State Reps. Mike Steele (R-12), Steve Tharinger (D-24) and Noel Frame (D-36). The bill was introduced last session but never received a public hearing.
Steele told the House Higher Education Committee on January 10 that Washington is home to great programs that help youth enroll into higher education institutions, but HB 2177 would help give those students the “last piece” they need for careers and job training.
“We talk a lot about rural economy and creating jobs in rural Washington, but it’s really become clear there are good paying, family-wage jobs that are available right now in rural Washington…but there are not enough trained workers to take those jobs.”
Steele said there are two career opportunities available within his district: nursing, which currently is experiencing a worker shortage and has a very livable starting wage, and the carpentry and welding program at Grays Harbor Community College. He said that students in that program typically graduate and have family-wage jobs waiting for them.
State Rep. Jeff Holy (R-6), Ranking Member of the committee, told colleagues: “Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and forestry workers (can’t) seem to find people that are interested into looking into apprenticeships or looking into journeyman status,” and added that part of the issue is related to spreading awareness of the opportunities in those fields. “I don’t think they understand the value and the quality of life and the job security and the money they can make doing something like this for actually making a really good living.”
Jason Callahan, Director of Governmental Relations at the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA), told lawmakers WFPA favors the bill as a better way to focus on business community needs.
“The original bill that was introduced had a really heavy student focus, and I think the bill’s narrative and the proposed substitute gives the employer a focus. It’s more about the workforce needs of the communities than the needs of the students for this particular program.”
Lisa Perry, Washington Community Relations Manager for Sierra Pacific Industries, spoke in strong support of the legislation. The company has mills in counties the bill would directly benefit: Grays Harbor, Skagit and Lewis.
“One line of our new mill is actually not operating because of a lack of skilled workforce,” Perry told lawmakers. “We’ve been short in skilled trades for a decade,” she continued. “The schools haven’t really pressed skilled trades over the last few years.”
Perry added that the industry needs help filling jobs related to mechatronics, along with positions from electricians to millwrights to truck drivers, and that her company was addressing part of the issue by training entry-level employees from within.
“Our problem now is we can’t even get entry-level employees,” she said. “We have family-wage jobs that have unlimited promotion potentials. They can start at $15 to $17 dollars an hour and within a couple years with some of this training be making some $30 dollars an hour easily.”
Yet part of the issue is the perception on the industry and its jobs, and Perry sees a role for the legislation to play in helping on this front. “This bill can really help solve that just by getting counselors, teachers, instructor and parents talking about these jobs,” she Perry. “The nice thing about this being regionalized is we can work directly with our community colleges so they can identify” any shortfalls.
In Port Angeles, a local timber and construction company is also grappling with the issue of finding skilled workers.
Jenny Knoth, Director of Environmental Affairs for the Green Crow Corporation, said “We do have a hard time filling positions within our construction side, as well as our forestry side. Most recently, we’ve been having a real hard time finding carpenters and we can’t seem to find enough people to help build the houses.”
Reed Wendel, a Forester for Green Crow, said he often hires out of local community colleges and appreciates their ability to bring workers into the company’s workforce.
“I feel this bill will help strengthen our rural community by providing an educated workforce in the area that the community needs,” he told panel members. “One of the most important aspects of the bill is that it identifies areas of need in our community and will focus the attention of students onto those fields of work.”
The bill is scheduled for possible executive session on January 17.