Driving workforce development in Whatcom County

Laura McKinney is the chair for YES Whatcom and leads the Whatcom Business Alliance’s workforce development initiative to engage with the emergent workforce and connect them with career opportunities in Whatcom County and beyond.

She also serves as the Northwest government affairs and public relations director for Alcoa and as vice chairman of the board for the Blaine School District. Her past experience includes stints as executive director for the American Chamber of Commerce in Estonia and the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness and as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.

BP: How did the YES Whatcom awareness campaign come about?
LM: The impetus behind YES Whatcom was the Youth Engagement Initiative, launched by the Whatcom Business Alliance in 2018.

YES Whatcom was created to help students have access to career options awareness, paid internships/apprenticeship programs and hands-on learning experiences here in Whatcom County.

Many young students who are thinking about college or about two- or four-year training programs are thinking in an abstract way. They want a job and think there’s little or nothing here in Whatcom County that meets their work goals. We are working to help them know … what the return on their investment could be here in this area.

BP: What are YES Whatcom’s goals?
LM: The purpose of the YES Whatcom campaign is to connect youth with local careers while also contributing to the local economy in positive ways. This allows partners to speak directly with high school students, letting them know what is available for them here in their home communities.

BP: What is the difference between job training and workforce development?
LM: Job training is really specific, with programs that provide specific training for specific jobs. Workforce development, on the other hand, focuses on how you bring along and develop a workforce that will be able to meet the company’s needs.

BP: Why do you think a focus on workforce development is important for Whatcom County?
LM: Workforce development is a necessary part of economic development, from a strategic viewpoint. One of the key components in hiring people to work in different job fields is to have a workforce that is ready for new development. Otherwise, you end up with companies looking at their labor force and saying these workers don’t meet their needs, and the company goes elsewhere — to another county, to another state or even country — where they can find workers who are ready and able to meet their needs.

BP: What tools does YES Whatcom use in reaching out to youth, and what school levels are these resources geared towards?
LM: YES Whatcom programming features career fairs and outreach programs, and these are primarily geared towards high school students.

BP: What have you found in your work with YES Whatcom is a key element to improving the talent pipeline?
LM: We are a known resource to local high schools, and the YES Whatcom website (www.yeswhatcom.com) information is really helpful to career counselors. These counselors at the high school level help students connect with specific programs that can help the student meet their goals.

Being able to connect with career counselors over the long term is really going to have the greatest impact, helping young persons think about what their future opportunities are and what their lives will look like as adults if they stay in western Washington.

For example, are they interested in working in the environmental field? If yes, what job opportunities are available to them in Bellingham or Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden and the Nooksack Valley?

BP: Can non-high school job seekers find local jobs on the website?
LM: Yes, the website information with company profiles is open for anyone looking for a job. Generally, these jobs are entry level, but could include some prerequisites.
For example, the Auda Sinda boutique weaving studio looks for employees who know about weaving, knitting and/or other types of textile construction and who show attention to detail and focus.

BP: What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on YES Whatcom’s mission to engage with students and businesses?
LM: YES Whatcom faced some major challenges when the pandemic struck. When we were thinking of how we could keep connected to students, we came up with the idea of the virtual jobs fair. Ultimately, doing this gave opportunities to 600 students across the county to participate in the online experience.

I think we have a really good model going that we will continue in order to make sure we can offer these meaningful engagements.

BP: How did YES Whatcom engage with students and businesses before the pandemic?
LM: Before the pandemic, the job fairs were usually an all-day affair. Employers would set up booths and students would troop in, carrying a list of questions to ask different employers. It was like a scavenger hunt for them to get the questions on their paper answered.

However, the students probably wouldn’t discover that Samson, for example, based in Ferndale, offers opportunities for jobs that include manufacturing rope products used in a variety of fields such as commercial fishing, defense, search and rescue, and entertainment operations, in addition to offering engineering, testing and field services.

BP: How many local companies are involved with YES Whatcom?
LM: Today, the website has 68-plus companies and is growing every month. We have the companies mapped so it gives a good visual of where the companies are located. I’d like to see the map filled.

BP: What resources are available on the YES Whatcom website?
LM: The YES Whatcom website offers companies and organizations the opportunity to post jobs, in addition to putting up a profile in the workplaces section. The profile and what information you can put in there is very flexible. You can link to your corporate site, upload videos on the website.

Job seekers can filter their preferred career cluster for more focused information on companies in that field.

There is a contact opportunity for companies to get more involved when we are able to be more in person, do more internships, and have students come into the company and job shadow an employee or multiple employees for a day. This is a great opportunity for building a workforce.

BP: What attributes are these companies looking for in employees?
LM: Companies are looking for basic-level workers, people who arrive on time for work, are able to learn on the job and work well with others. These are basic skills that are critical to the success of a team.

A lot of companies around here have internal training programs where you get paid while training.

BP: What kinds of jobs are posted on the YES Whatcom job board?
LM: When we first launched this website, I spoke with a career counselor in Ferndale. She told me about a student who was looking for a job that involved more than working in a fast food place. Through YES Whatcom, the young person found an opportunity for work for NW Laboratories as a lab technician.

Recent listings include seasonal production jobs and long-term jobs ranging from law enforcement to marketing and office assistants, couriers for a laboratory, and cashiers.

BP: How are businesses adapting to the future of work in the aftermath of the pandemic?
LM: Locally, I would say most of the entry-level jobs haven’t changed, despite the pandemic. Typically, companies are continuing to look for hands-on workers such as for health care, warehouses, etc.

BP: What is your connection to YES Whatcom, and what do you like about your position?
LM: I am the committee chair for YES Whatcom, and I connect through that way to the WBA board. Workforce development is a personal passion of mine; everywhere that I have been in my career, I’ve tried to engage in that opportunity whenever possible.

I have five children and get really excited knowing what I know about the local community.
My own 18-year-old was able to tell students about the opportunities available through YES Whatcom. Some kids said they never knew these opportunities existed. Also, some teenagers may not know that these companies they drive past are connected globally.

BP: If a company isn’t hiring, how does it fit into YES Whatcom?
LM: Sometimes, a company may not be hiring at the moment; however, hearing about what they do can energize students to be aware of new career opportunities.
Companies can also become supporters for the career fairs. Information is available on the website.

BP: What are some of the companies that are part of YES Whatcom? Are there any non-Whatcom companies represented?
LM: YES Whatcom has been able to facilitate opportunities for students who live in the southern part of the county with Janicki Industries, a Skagit County-based company. The company specializes in composite materials and exotic metals, using equipment to produce parts and tools for industries from aerospace to transportation and architecture.

Lynden Door manufactures doors for residential, architectural and commercial businesses. The scope of their operations includes design to door-making. There are a couple of cases where their representative talked about people starting on the floor and moving up into management.

Intellitonic, based in Bellingham, specializes in online marketing through SEO (search engine optimization) to help clients learn to put their best digital marketing strategies forward in building their customer bases.

BP: What’s next for YES Whatcom?
LM: We will start career fairs again next year. These events feature an overview that states the purpose of the job fair; breakout sessions with panelists and a moderator from employers in different industry fields, such as finance/business management, transportation/distribution and logistics; and a closing session, with basic information on reaching out for employment.

YES Whatcom lets kids know there is an exciting future for them, right here.

Karla Kings, the human resources generalist for Enfield Farms of Lynden, highlights how YES Whatcom helps the farm meet its employment goals. Kings’ professional background includes nine years as business manager for Pro Italia Motors.

BP: When looking for workers, do you ever hear teenagers saying they wouldn’t work on a farm since they don’t want to be a farmer?
KK: Many teenagers have the wrong idea when it comes to the idea of working on a farm.
The family-owned farm grows and packages raspberries and blueberries to places around the globe. Even if someone doesn’t want to become a farmer, because we are a big company, there are so many opportunities here, both for temporary positions and full-time. Some of our upper-level managers started out here as pickers.

BP: What kind of jobs are available at Enfield for young people who are looking for seasonal or full-time employment?
KK: We are looking for young people with a good, old-fashioned work ethic who are motivated, passionate and engaged. This summer, Enfield was looking for seasonal workers to help on the harvest facility line, from age 14 on up.

Positions available to teenagers 16 and older include pulling fruit from the cooler, driving positions that include forklifts, and working as lab technicians in product monitoring, quality grading and monitoring good manufacturing practices.

We have a new job this year — harvester prepper — for someone 16 or older. This position is responsible for preparing the harvesters each day.

BP: How does YES Whatcom help Enfield Farms find workers?
KK: YES Whatcom has been an integral part of our being able to continue to do the job fairs and an integral part of our hiring effort to high schools and junior high schools.

Usually we would go out to the high schools and junior high schools to recruit workers at the job fairs. With the situation with COVID-19, we were all in a very different situation. The virtual job fair gave us opportunities to connect with students.

We are grateful to YES Whatcom.