Addressing Environmental and Natural Resource Sector Worker Shortages

Addressing Environmental and Natural Resource Sector Worker Shortages
SB 5285 would require an inclusive study of agriculture, natural resources, environmental, and outdoor recreation sectors to determine how to address workforce needs. Proponents argue the measure would allow K-12 and higher education teachers to better inform students of those fields as career opportunities.

Washington state lawmakers are trying a new approach to fill jobs left open for the state’s environmental sectors. SB 5285 would encourage better communication between higher education institutions and the business community through a comprehensive study, to determine the best ways to encourage early interest in these fields and fill ever-increasing worker shortages.

On Friday, February 24, the measure was voted out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Prime sponsor is State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17), with State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) cosponsoring.

The companion bill, HB 1404, was scheduled for executive session during the House Appropriations Committee’s Tuesday, February 21 meeting, but no action was taken. Proponents of the measure argued last month that the study would better align educators with industry needs, and help fill job gaps in high-demand fields.

Supporters of the House legislation testified last month that, often times, there is often misinformation about industries such as natural resources, which causes students to miss out on these potential job opportunities and leave employers with open spots. Also in agreement was a higher education institution leader who testified last week that the Senate measure would better align its coursework to help fill industry needs.

Aligning ‘Career-Connected’ Learning

Kathryn Kurtz, Executive Director at the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), told the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, February 22 that “SSB 5285 will help us deliver that locally relevant career-connected learning for students across Washington state.”

Kurtz added, “If we know the jobs that are available for students with a two-year postsecondary degree in our rural and remote areas, we are better able to align our K-12 work to ensure our educators and students understand regional, middle-skill employment opportunities.”

Washington’s environmental industries provide important economic and employment benefits for state residents. According to the bill report:

-The state’s $49 billion food and agriculture industry provides jobs for an estimated 160,000 people;

-Thousands of Washington residents work in environmental sector jobs including sustainable forestry and salmon restoration; and,

-More than 1,700 businesses are related to forest products, bringing in an estimated $28 billion annually.

SB 5285 would require the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board (WTECB) to perform a workforce assessment to determine employment opportunities in the agriculture, natural resource, and environmental sectors. The board would also need to interview state employers from those sectors to determine the business community’s expectation for filling skilled job positions.

The intent of the study is to better educate teachers about the viability of those fields as career paths, and encourage educators to tweak or expand their classes to support this effort, according to the bill’s text. The study must also recommend how to improve the breadth of data available on the sectors’ workforces, and pinpoint which skills would best ensure worker success.

Outdoor Recreation: Worth Including

However, lawmakers such as State Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40) say the bill should also include outdoor recreation. He is Ranking Minority Member the Senate Ways and Means Committee. At Wednesday’s meeting, he referenced a 2015 economic analysis of the importance of outdoor recreation in Washington.

The industry “equates for $21.6 billion in annual spending directly supporting 199,000 jobs. If we are going to be looking at these pieces” for the study, “I want to make sure that’s in there,” he said.

In response to whether outdoor recreation would also fit in with PEI’s mission, Kurtz said, “Absolutely. We work with the governor’s outdoor recreation board…and we work with those areas. The workforce training board is going to look at existing studies as part of the language in this bill as well,” and “that would be part of what they would be looking at.”

On Friday, February 24, second substitute SB 5285 was voted out of committee and sent to Rules. It included a provision that added outdoor recreation to the sectors included in the study, and specified that there must be a representative sample of employers interviewed.






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