Federal labor official lauds Oregon effort to diversify workforce

Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su says America’s workforce has to look more like all Americans to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, reinvest in domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and make the transition to carbon-free energy.

She spoke after touring the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center in Northeast Portland, speaking with some of those in pre-apprenticeship programs, and listening to organizations such as Oregon Tradeswomen and Constructing Hope that seek to attract people to jobs where they have historically been underrepresented. Constructing Hope, based in Portland, aims at helping people newly released from jails and prisons enter the workforce.

A trio of laws that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed in 2021 and 2022 channel more than $1 trillion over a decade into improved highways, bridges and other public works, expanded capacity for making computer chips within the United States, and development of alternatives to planet-warming fossil fuels.

“These investments are doing work that hasn’t been done in a long time — and those jobs have not always been open and available to everybody in every community,” Su said at a panel discussion at the center on Friday, Feb. 23. “So we say along with all of you very clearly: Not this time, and not on our watch. This time is going to be different.”

Su, during a two-day swing through Oregon, also met with the RISE Partnership that seeks to increase the ranks of care providers. A stop at the Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro earlier on Feb. 23 allowed her to visit a Portland Community College program, Quick Start, that prepares people for high-tech manufacturing jobs.

“The challenge is to build on what you already have proven to work,” she said.

“We will come back in short order and see that the investments are making a real difference — not just to build the things we want to build and not just to make sure everyone has clean energy, but that the good jobs created are union jobs that the people in this room are going to be proud doing.”

Cabinet visits

Su is the latest of more than a half-dozen Cabinet secretaries to visit Oregon during Biden’s presidency. Her predecessor, Martin Walsh, visited the NECA-IBEW Center in March 2022.

“It is because Oregon is doing the work and doing it the right way,” she told reporters afterward. “You have a (training) infrastructure building up to deliver what we need.”

Oregon lawmakers approved a $200 million training program, Future Ready Oregon, that then-Gov. Kate Brown proposed in 2022. The program is focused on training in construction, health care and manufacturing for women and others who have lacked opportunities for jobs.

Su, 55, has been acting secretary for nearly a year after Walsh departed to become president of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. A Senate committee has cleared her long-stalled nomination.

She would be the fourth Asian-American in history to lead a Cabinet department. Others were Norm Mineta, commerce secretary under Bill Clinton and transportation secretary under George W. Bush; Elaine Chao, labor secretary under Bush and transportation secretary under Donald Trump, and Steven Chu, energy secretary under Barack Obama.

Su was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton who sits on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Bonamici also is the top Democrat on its higher education and workforce development subcommittee.

Bonamici said that, along with the added federal dollars for infrastructure, manufacturing and energy projects must come a more diversified workforce.

Among the steps Congress has yet to take, she said, are a renewed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — Congress passed the original law in 2014 — and social supports, such as federal aid for child care and a national program for paid family leave, that had been part of Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. The House passed it in 2021 but it died in the Senate the following year.

“All the work is not going to be done right away,” she said. “But we will be growing the workforce to meet these needs.”

Demand for workers

According to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, which has projected slower population growth or no in-migration into Oregon during the next several years, Oregon could fill part of the pending workforce gap by expanding training opportunities for groups that have not fully participated before: Women, people of color, people with disabilities and people newly released from prison or jail.

Among those they met during their visit were Kristy Wilhite and Kennitha Wade.

Wilhite, who lives in Gresham, started in an office job that lasted six months and was working as a bartender when she discovered Oregon Tradeswomen. Her next job also involved an office — she worked on construction of a building in Beaverton.

“I have some things I did not have as a bartender, such as a retirement plan and health insurance,” she said. “These are things you do not take for granted when you work most of your life without them. When you get them, you find the security to pay your bills and have health insurance for your kids.”

She said Oregon Tradeswomen opened the way for her to enter an occupation she knew nothing about.

“There is an untapped market out there for women,” she said afterward. “A lot of women do not know where to begin. I tell women all the time about Oregon Tradeswomen … it gives you an insight into what you might enjoy doing and what you might be capable of doing.”

Wade’s involvement in the trades goes back more than a decade. She earned journeyman status in 2017, and a couple of years ago, became an instructor who now oversees the two-week boot camp at the center run by the National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48.

“Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to work in construction,” she said. “But I didn’t know anybody who worked in construction. So I applied for jobs back when you did so on Yahoo,” she said to audience laughter.

pwong@pamplinmmedia.com

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