Whole generation losing interest in blue-collar jobs

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

BEND, Ore. -- At 5 feet, 10 inches tall and on the skinny side, Sayer Singleton is one of the manufacturing industry's worst nightmares.

He isn't a state inspector or union organizer. He's not an economist bearing bad news. He's not even a radical environmentalist. Singleton is just a 17-year-old soon-to-be Bend High School senior who wants to go to college and study biology -- and that has blue-collar employers worried.

That's because the last thing Singleton and most of his friends want to do is go to work in one of their factories.

''No. Never. It just doesn't sound ... cool,'' he said. ''You have to go to college. That's the next step. There are no other steps. That's it.''

Because of a generation of attitudes like Singleton's, companies ranging from cabinet makers to airplane manufacturers say they're having a tough time attracting younger employees to replace older workers who quit, retire or advance up the company ladder.

When recruiters go in search of new workers to fill entry-level jobs, they say they increasingly run into the same ''thanks, but no thanks'' attitude from teens or 20-somethings holding out for better prospects. Though state and local officials don't track the number of unfilled job openings, anecdotal evidence suggests some of Central Oregon's best-paying jobs are going unfilled for months at a time.

''We don't see a lot of people walking in the door wanting to fill out a job application,'' said J.J. Yacovella, human resources director at Bend's Beaver Coaches. He said it's not unusual for the larger manufacturing companies to have as many as a dozen open positions at any given time because it's so hard to attract, and keep, younger workers.

''We pay on average a better starting salary than Mount Bachelor, but kids just don't seem interested,'' Yacovella said.

Personnel managers -- from Bright Wood Corp. in Madras to Prineville's Clear Pine Mouldings -- report similar trends. Steady jobs with decent pay and good benefits go unfilled, while teens look elsewhere for work.

''It has a drastic effect,'' said Clear Pine Human Resources Director Gene Schmidt. ''There are hundreds of jobs available here but no one to fill them. We could offer more jobs if we had an adequate work-force pool. We don't, and that's one reason we can't expand.''

Why the waning interest in blue-collar jobs in a region with such thick and enduring blue-collar roots? It isn't the pay.

Deschutes County manufacturing companies pay on average $30,980 per year -- higher than, among others, the construction, real estate, financial services and local government sectors, according to Economic Development for Central Oregon's (EDCO) 2001 area profile.

The trend might have more to do with the changing nature of business.

An area once dominated by lumber mills and the wood-products industry, Central Oregon is now attracting more high-tech companies than ever before. As the United States, indeed the world, continues its infatuation with the bells and whistles of modern technology, factory jobs may have become less appetizing to 18-year-olds fresh out of high school.

Weston Lerwill, 17, acknowledges that few of his friends at Redmond High School consider working at a factory after high school. Most talk about college; some plan on enlisting in the military. But Lerwill, who'll be a senior this year, said he's thought about applying at factories, among other places.

''My dad worked at the old mill. He made pretty good wages and had a good job,'' he said. ''But I think I'd rather be in management.''

That's why Lerwill also is seriously considering going to college, if, that is, he can land a wrestling scholarship.

Spurned manufacturing outfits place much of the blame on schools and parents who, they say, too often paint a college degree as the only road to success.

''We're sold on the idea that everybody needs to go to college,'' said Dale Parnell, a nationally recognized expert on technical education.

''But we've got to do something different with the people who don't get bachelor's degrees. They are the vast majority. But in this country, and I don't know why, we look down our noses at vocational education. We need to change our cultural bias.''

Parnell, a former head of the Oregon Department of Education, argued in his 1984 book, ''The Neglected Majority,'' that the nation's educational system is failing the roughly 50 percent of kids who graduate from high school each year but don't go on to college. Each year, roughly one-third of the region's graduating seniors go on to a four-year college or university. Another third go to community colleges.

But, Parnell said, nearly half of the students who start college drop out, many finding their way to a blue-collar trade. Parnell suggests creating a system of technical programs beginning in the 11th grade and leading to an associate's degree in various applied fields. But to do that, he says, requires rethinking most high schools' curricula.

''It's a tough sell because some teachers and administrators don't accept it,'' he said. ''But I'm not talking about dumbing down. I'm talking about teaching these kids good science and good math, but taught differently. Kids have to see what the utility is of doing all this.''

There are signs school districts are paying more attention to Parnell's ''neglected majority.''

The Bend-La Pine School District recently refocused attention on its School-to-Career program, a partnership between the district and local businesses that sponsors internships and job shadowing experiences. Once totally independent, this year the district brought the program under its aegis largely to prepare for the Certificate of Advanced Mastery, part of a sweeping educational reform package passed by the Legislature in the early 1990s.

With its emphasis on job training and career-oriented education, the certificate will also address another complaint from many blue collar employers: that the young employees they do hire don't have adequate skills.

''There is always this emphasis on four-year universities, but the vast majority of kids don't make it there,'' said Larry Fenili, the School-to-Career executive director.

''The district is committed to putting the resources in place to address the problem,'' he said.

Additionally, most school districts in the tri-county area participate to some degree in Central Oregon Community College's 2+2 Tech/Prep program, which offers high school students college credit for technical courses they take in high school.

Meanwhile, local businesses have jobs to fill, and that pressing need spawned the Oregon Opportunities Network two years ago. The network, a loose consortium of manufacturing companies, formed in the wake of a minisummit held in 1999 to address work-force issues small- and medium-sized manufacturers were having.

Summit participants identified the industry's image with younger workers as a major problem and formed the network to help improve it. The group is now developing a Web site touting manufacturing companies and is considering making a recruitment video to show to high school students.

''We want to change the image of these kinds of job in the minds of students, and that starts in school,'' said Verda Hinkle, a consultant helping to spearhead the manufacturing network.

''I mean, kids are told if they don't keep their grades up, they'll end up in a factory. That's not very helpful for us. We have to change the entire culture.''

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