Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of our series about combating unemployment and job stagnation in Cowlitz County. The first two parts appeared Sunday and Tuesday.
Five years ago, lured by the promise of a high-paying job, William “Chuck” Hast and his wife packed up and drove from Tampa, Fla., across the country to Kalama.
Because he had previously worked for a company that installed glass plant hardware, he was recruited to work at the Bennu Glass wine bottle plant at Port of Kalama, which was restarting in 2012 after its 2009 bankruptcy shutdown. As a maintenance technician making $35 an hour, he helped to set up the plant, train employees and improved the process for detecting bottle defects. So two years later, it came as a shock when he was let go as the company was preparing to sell, he said.
“It was a bit frustrating,” said Hast, 66, of Kelso. “My whole idea was to retire there.”
Hast has bounced between different jobs and contracting works since then. He’s taking online technical training courses with WorkSource to better his employment prospects. He’s like many unemployed workers in Cowlitz County who are having to turn to other fields to find work or else increase their skills to keep up to pace with advancing technology. Many employers here say there’s still a mismatch between the kinds of jobs employers need to fill and the kinds of skills and experience that workers have. Closing that gap through training and education is another critical part of reducing unemployment, because jobs are open, economic development leaders say.
At least one job placement agency says job availability has perked up significantly this year. Julie Nelson, president of American Workforce Group, said there about 70 open positions at the companies that she recruits and hires for. But she other employers say finding the right worker with the skills and experience and clean drug tests can be a challenge. Manual machinists, mechanics and welders always seem to be in short supply, Nelson said.
Tori Skinner, business development director at Goodwill Industries, said most job listings now often require some post-high school education.
“From what I’ve seen, what’s in demand, it’s not entry level. It’s a technical-degree status, it’s those two-to-three-year technical degrees, like medical coding and medical billing, and things really specific to what that employer needs,” Skinner said. Skinner coordinates internships and training programs at Goodwill for “opportunity youth” — meaning unemployed people between the ages of 16 to 24.
Hyatt Yu, a Kaiser Permanente administrator in Longview, said the area and nation are “chronically short” of lab technicians, x-ray technicians, radiologists and at times, licensed practical nurses.
Yet sometimes having the experience and degrees isn’t enough to snag a job right away, particularly for unemployed older workers.
Longview resident Donni Martelle, 66, has been struggling to find permanent work as a counselor, in spite of her master’s degree and decades of experience. She had worked in social service and counselor roles, assisting people with disabilities for the state until 2009, when she was forced to take a few years off to recover from two car accidents. After a few years on state disability, she retired briefly, but she craved the fulfillment of working and she found couldn’t survive off of Social Security. So she picked up the job search again last year.
“It’s a gap (in my resume) and I haven’t explained that part. They haven’t asked the age part, but there’s kind of (an) implied ageism,” Martelle said. Late last year, she had a three-month stint at a local social service agency, but she said she didn’t fit in because of her age and a gap in computer skills, so she was let go.
“It’s hard. I have to tell you I’ve dealt with frustration, tears, depression, anxiety that comes with that. You feel lost, and you feel like the door is being slammed in your face,” she said.
But Martelle argues there are resources for the unemployed here. Currently she’s brushing up on her computer skills with Microsoft courses at Goodwill Industries and has received help from WorkSource on the job hunt, too.
“You can find a job, you just need to be proactive. And that’s why I hope that people never give up. ... And sometimes you have to humble yourself,” Martelle said.
Many workers find they have to lower their expectations for salaries and change their lifestyle as they enter new fields.
“What I’m coming to realize is a lot of these (employers), they want a Cadillac but they only have the money for Volkswagon. What they’re looking for, they’re wanting someone to do these jobs, but they’re paying almost an entry-level salary,” Hast said.
For instance, Nate Peck, 37, a former KapStone worker, saw his wage drop from $25 an hour to $14 an hour now as a temp employee. He and his girlfriend have had to adjust their lifestyles to support themselves and their children.
“You make changes where you have to, like buying less things you don’t need,” he said. “It hasn’t been fun or easy.”
A Longview native, Peck comes from a line of mill workers — his grandfather and father both worked at Weyerhaeuser Co. After graduating from R.A. Long High School in 1998, he, too, went straight into work at local mills. Most recently he worked 10 years at Longview Fibre Co./KapStone mill before he was let go for missing work. After a few months of struggling to find work, Peck plugged into a job placement agency, American Workforce Group, where he’s working temporary manufacturing jobs.
John Davis, 24, a recent transplant from Clark County, has readjusted his plans, too, by moving to Cowlitz County to live with his cousin and save on rent. In 2015, Davis quit his manufacturing job at Bob’s Red Mill in Portland because he tired of the daily commute Vancouver. He switched to contract driving for Uber and Lyft, but eventually the market was flooded with too many drivers, he said.
Already Davis was living paycheck-to-paycheck when he was hit with bad luck: his car broke down, his motorcycle was stolen and health problems led to expensive hospital bills. At first, Davis said he was picky about the salary and types of job he applied for.
“Once I realized I didn’t have the experience needed, it wasn’t hard to humble myself. I’m grateful now for anything I can get,” Davis said. He’s now an employee of American Workforce Group working for in a temp-to-hire position at a local fabrication shop and he is taking placement tests to eventually become an electrician.
Offering additional training and opportunities for younger workers like Davis is another key to reducing joblessness and preventing the need for young people to look outside of the county for work, Skinner said.
“So the struggle is how to do we engage (young local people) in the local economy so that we can keep them and grow our economy and really enhance a lot of our industries without losing our talent,” Skinner said.
Hast, the former Bennu Glass employee, now is looking for work in and outside of Cowlitz County. After leaving Bennu in 2014, he did contracting work and logged two years at Ozone International, a company that produces an organic cleaning agent to sterilize food manufacturing plants. But he was laid off in September. In the last several months he’s applied for dozens of jobs. A few prospects fell through because of funding problems, and he’s also found he doesn’t have the necessary certifications to match his experience.
But he’s hoping his WorkSource training and a few recent positive interviews lead to better times.
Throughout his career, Hast has worked in several fields, as a pilot, a small business owner in Costa Rica, a technician in radio, food manufacturing and glass plants. “I remake myself about every so often. So that seems to be kind of the nature of the beast. So I have no qualms about that.”