Overall, Longview and Cowlitz County have recovered from the economic strains created by the pandemic. The unemployment rate is lower than it was before COVID-19 and the total number of jobs is higher in some measures.
But are the available jobs attractive to long-term workers? What does it mean to offer a high quality job?
The Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative is attempting to answer this question for businesses in southwest Washington and northern Oregon through the Quality Jobs Initiative. The Workforce Council is a team of three nonprofit employment agencies: Workforce SW Washington, Worksystems and Clackamas Workforce Partnership.
Agencies began meeting with a council of business leaders from the region in August to determine which aspects of the job are most important for a quality experience. These ideas and goals will be turned into a framework that will be released early next year for local businesses to take inspiration from.
“People need to earn enough money to cover their basic expenses, but a good job is more than just a salary,” said Darcy Hoffman, director of business services for Workforce SW Washington.
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One of the business representatives on the board is Bob Gustainis, the regional manager for the Walgreens district in southwest Washington. Gustainis said the final column that comes out of the report should work for local businesses as well as companies like Walgreens that can’t change much locally.
Gustainis said inclusiveness is going to be the main policy he plans to work on with his store managers. He hopes that by actively trying to create a better working environment, it will be easier to retain workers for the lower-paying and lower-skilled positions.
“If everyone’s going for the fast food prices, then why is Jimmy staying 10 years?” Do you speak differently to Jimmy? Do you treat him differently from the recruits you worked with? Said Gustave.
Positive signs for the number of local jobs
The Longview area has reported an unemployment rate of less than 5% every month since September, which is more than just a turnaround from double-digit unemployment rates in the first months of COVID-19 – it is the lowest unemployment rate the county has seen since 1990, according to the Washington State Department of Job Security.
Scott Bailey, the department’s regional economist for Southwest Washington, said the unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story. People who have stopped looking for a job are not counted as unemployed.
“Some people are not returning to work, either because of concerns about COVID or because of child care, or because of children entering and leaving schools,” Bailey said.
He prefers to use the total number of jobs as a measure of local economic strength, which is equally strong for the region. Preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the Longview area had about 41,300 total jobs in November. The highest number reached in the years leading up to the pandemic was 41,100 employees.
While recent numbers appear positive, Bailey cautioned against using them to guess what the job market will look like in 2022.
“All bets are off on predictions. You tell me what Omicron is going to do, or what is going to follow in the Greek alphabet, ”Bailey said.
Childcare and business success
One of the issues raised under the Quality Jobs Initiative is the availability of child care.
“It was a few years ago that people were struggling to distinguish between child care and developing labor,” Hoffman said.
Workforce SW Washington wrote a report in December 2020 on the importance of child care options for businesses. Employers at dozens of businesses in Cowlitz County were asked how their workers have been affected.
The report found that 18% of the total workforce of the companies surveyed had encountered childcare barriers at some point. Just over half of companies said child care was a significant issue for at least one employee.
Shiftworkers were four times more likely to have had childcare issues between 2018 and 2020. Given the prevalence of shiftwork in manufacturing and healthcare, two of Cowlitz County’s top industries , Hoffman said companies should know the impacts of the problem when hiring. .
“They can work 12 hour shifts or cemetery shifts and if babysitting isn’t hard enough, that adds a whole new layer,” Hoffman said.
Workforce SW Washington addresses child care issues outside of the Quality Jobs program. The Workforce Collaborative received $ 2.3 million from the US Department of Labor in December to help cover child care costs for job seekers. The labor share is $ 183,000 to help cover the costs of a few dozen people finding new jobs in southwest Washington.
Additionally, Hoffman said the group is working on a larger public-private partnership in Cowlitz County that would help more with child care. Hoffman said the project did not yet have the “critical mass at the table” to release official details.