In the big picture, Longview and Cowlitz County have recovered from the economic stresses brought on by the pandemic. The unemployment rate is lower than it was before COVID-19 and the total number of jobs is higher by some measures.
But are the available jobs attractive to workers in the long run? What does high quality job posting mean?
The Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative is trying to answer this question for companies across 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.
The agencies began meeting with a council of business leaders from the region in August to identify the most important functional aspects of the quality experience. These ideas and goals will be turned into a framework that will be released early next year for local businesses to use as inspiration.
“People need to earn enough money for basic living expenses, but it takes a lot more good jobs than just wages,” said Darcy Hoffman, director of business services at Workforce SW Washington.
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Bob Justinis is a business representative on the board, the Walgreens Regional Director for Southwest Washington. Godedes said the final evaluation model that comes out of the report should work with local businesses as well as companies like Walgreens that can only change so much on a local level.
Goodness said inclusion will be the main policy he plans to work on with his store managers. He hopes that a serious attempt to create a better work environment will make it easier to retain workers in lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs.
“If everyone is leaving for fast food pay rates, why does Jimmy stay for 10 years? Do you talk differently to Jimmy? Do you treat him differently than the freshmen you’ve been working with?” Goodness said.
Positive signals for local job numbers
The Longview area has reported an unemployment rate of less than 5% each month since September which is more than a shift from double-digit unemployment rates during the early months of COVID-19 — it’s the lowest unemployment the county has seen since 1990, according to the Washington State Department of Employment Security .
The unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Scott Bailey, the department’s regional economist for southwest Washington. People who stop looking for jobs are not considered unemployed.
“Some people are not going back to work, either because of COVID concerns, childcare, or children moving in and out of schools,” Bailey said.
He favors using the total number of jobs as a measure of local economic strength, which is similarly strong for the region. Preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the Longview area had about 41,300 jobs in November. The highest number reached in the years leading up to the pandemic was 41,100 employees.
While the latest numbers look positive, Bailey cautioned against using them to assume what the job market will look like in 2022.
“All bets are off prediction,” said Bailey. “Tell me what the omicron will do, or what’s next in the Greek alphabet.”
Childcare and Business Success
One problem that has emerged as part of the Quality Jobs initiative is the availability of childcare.
“It was just a few years ago, people were finding it difficult to draw the line between childcare and business development,” Hoffman said.
Workforce SW Washington prepared a report in December 2020 on the importance of childcare options for businesses. Employers from dozens of Cowlitz County businesses were interviewed about how their workers were affected.
The report found that 18% of the total workforce in companies interviewed had encountered childcare barriers at some point. Slightly more than half of the companies said childcare was a significant problem for at least one employee.
Shift workers were four times as likely to have difficulty caring for children between 2018 and 2020. Given the prevalence of shift work in manufacturing and health care, two major industries in Cowlitz County, Hoffman said companies should know the effects this problem will have on hiring. .
“Maybe they work 12-hour shifts or work cemetery shifts, and if childcare isn’t already challenging enough, that just adds a whole new layer to it,” Hoffman said.
Workforce SW Washington addresses childcare concerns outside of the Good Jobs Program. Workforce Collaborative received $2.3 million from the US Department of Labor in December to help cover childcare costs for job seekers. The workforce quota comes to $183,000 to help cover the costs of a few dozen people taking new jobs across southwest Washington.
In addition, Hoffman said the group is working on a larger public-private partnership in Cowlitz County that would further assist with childcare. Hoffman said the project does not yet have “the critical mass on the table” to release official details.