Bellingham Herald: Training program helping match job seekers with employers in Whatcom County

Feb 2, 2012

By: Dave Gallagher

February 2, 2012

Matching someone who is out of work to an open position can be challenging at this stage of the economy, so it's great to see some success taking place in Whatcom County.

Specified Fittings Inc. is one of those under-the-radar companies that play an important role in the local economy. The 15-year-old company manufactures a variety of products, including fittings for pipes and valves that are shipped around the world. Specified Fittings has a facility on West Smith Road north of Bellingham, employing 126 people, as well as a facility in Montana.

The company recently landed some contracts that would mean an increase in production. It needed to quickly add employees to expand production to three shifts. Specified Fittings contacted the Northwest Workforce Council about its on-the-job training program, which resulted in the creation of 26 new positions, with more expected to be hired later this year.

The on-the-job training program provides partial reimbursement of the employee's wages to help a business defray the cost of training new workers. The reimbursement amount depends on the complexity of the skills and the need of the individual, but it's set up in a way to get the employee trained quickly.

Specified Fittings owner Greg Gundel said they initially viewed partnering with a government agency with some trepidation, fearing the red tape would slow them down. Instead, they were able to get people to work fairly quickly with little disruption from the work schedule.

"I was amazed at how well this has worked," Gundel said while giving U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, and a few Northwest Workforce Council workers a tour of the facility Friday, Jan. 27.

This time of transition in the economy is an important one for matching unemployed workers with jobs that fit them. The past few years employers were more concerned about shedding jobs; we now seem to be at that stage where some companies are hiring again while other firms continue to cut back. That makes for a difficult hiring environment for employers and job seekers. Many employers are looking for a specific set of skills, while job seekers may have some but not all of those skills from previous experience.

For example, while companies like Specified Fittings are doing some hiring, Kimberly Clark is closing its paper mill in Everett, putting about 700 people out of work. Both companies require some of the same skills, but the pay is different. Some high-skilled jobs at the Kimberly Clark mill were in the $35-an-hour range, while similar work at Specified Fittings is in the $18-$22 range, Gundel said.

"It's a dilemma; we're a small company, so sometimes it's a matter of being the right fit," Gundel said.

But at least it means more opportunities are available for those out of work. It's a much different picture than for those laid off in 2009, when very few companies were hiring.

What's particularly promising for Larsen about this company is its growth in exports.

"It's a big deal to have a company that has 126 jobs involved in exporting products," Larsen said. "If we're not attacking those markets, it hurts the local economy."

So far the Northwest Workforce Council on-the-job initiative has helped put 49 people back to work at nine businesses. For more information about the program in Whatcom County, contact Rich Sandeen at 360-676-3217.