Investing in workforce development in Whatcom County

Dividends expected today and long into the future

Finding — and keeping — a trained, capable, reliable workforce continues to be one of the greatest challenges business owners face today in Whatcom County and across the nation. The skilled trades and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are experiencing the greatest need. A perfect storm of barriers has resulted in worker shortages across virtually all business sectors, hindering growth.

Thankfully, a coalition of local governments, colleges and universities, trade organizations, nonprofits and businesses in Whatcom County are working harder than ever to ensure that resources, opportunities and support are in place to develop workers to meet current demand and ambitious, long-term economic goals. By bringing together community leaders, big-picture thinkers and public and private resources, locals are confident that collaborative efforts will help both youth and incumbent workers adapt and succeed in the trades and STEM careers in a constantly evolving global economic climate.

Step one: understanding the problem
Although we don’t all agree on exactly how we got here, there are a few obvious contributors.

“The pandemic put a huge pause on workforce development, because we weren’t able to align opportunities as a community — we were all working from home,” recalled Anya Milton, former executive director of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, now serving as Bellingham Technical College’s director of corporate and continuing education and work-based education.

About 75,000 fewer students were enrolled in community and technical colleges in the 2021-2022 academic year compared to before the pandemic, according to the 2022 Washington Student Achievement Council Report. That is also the case for BTC, which has been training students for technical careers for more than six decades. Enrollment is down in most of its associate degree and certificate programs, as are Whatcom Community College’s community and continuing education and degree and certificate programs. A number of factors have contributed to the enrollment declines, and we don’t fully understand them all.

“People found other means of getting income during the pandemic, and maybe quality of life is another aspect,” Milton said. “For some of these young folks, the last three years of their education have been spent online. Those are pivotal years of development — especially socially — for these upcoming workers, and it will take them some time. But there is a renewed urgency to align opportunities from the K-12 system to community and technical colleges.”

Even before the pandemic, the skilled trades had struggled to maintain workforce numbers. “In the early ’90s, ‘vocational education’ became ‘career and technical education’ or ‘CTE,’” explained Deb Granger of the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County. “We worked hard to change the perception that it was, you know, lesser than or not as rigorous as the four-year system.”

The coalition, which Granger helped found in 2015, now includes 135 businesses and individuals focused on preserving the county’s working waterfronts. Their primary initiatives include connecting students with training.

Granger recalls how young people were increasingly encouraged to pursue four-year degrees with promises of higher wages, advancement and job security — promises that are not being realized for many today.

“When students hear that and think, ‘I’m not cut out for college,’ they don’t have a clear idea of what their other options are,” Milton said.

Lance Calloway, northern district manager of the Washington Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, agrees.

“Only about 30% of the kids that graduate high school go on to college,” he said. “But, unfortunately, too much of our time is focused on that, so we’re short-changing the other students. I’ve seen good change in some sectors, but we also really need to change the mentality of mom and dad.”

Granger agrees that educating parents and changing perceptions has helped the pendulum swing back toward hands-on learning. But the problem in the trades is expected to continue to grow.

“Statistically, there will be about 750,000 experienced tradespeople leaving the industry in the next seven to eight years across the country due to retirement,” Calloway said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that many coming up to backfill. General contractors in particular are telling us that they are declining to bid on 20-25% of the work available to them because they didn’t have the labor to do the work and don’t want to overextend.”

Implementing a strategy together
Those focused on economic development are stepping up to plan and implement actions to address the community’s needs. The Port of Bellingham’s Economic Development Division Regional Economic Partnership formed Team Whatcom, a coalition of leaders from more than 30 entities focused on economic development, including tribes, city and county governments, business and nonprofit organizations and educators. The group has met twice a month for the past several years in pursuit of the REP’s goal to attract (and retain) livable wage jobs and to help ensure the success of businesses, entrepreneurs and local organizations.

In October 2021, the group produced the Whatcom County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy 2022-2026 report, which included a goal to “develop a skilled workforce, expand educational attainment, and align employer needs with educational programs and curriculum.” In addition to Team Whatcom, a number of other programs are attempting to find or be the solution.

Although enrollment has declined since the pandemic, Running Start has been active in Washington state high schools for three decades. The program allows high school juniors and seniors to take classes for simultaneous high school and college credit at community and technical colleges.

High schoolers interested in the construction industry can explore via the Washington state program, Core Plus Construction, administered by AGC’s Education Foundation. Students can explore construction industry careers through hands-on learning while earning high school credit.

“Industry professionals are coming into the classroom and working with the students directly,” Calloway said. The real-world skills and experience will help them in jobs, apprenticeships, trade school certificate programs, two- and four-year colleges and the military.

Calloway says Bellingham School District is one of 52 across the state with the Core Plus Construction program, and another is in the works for Blaine School District in fall 2023.
Lummi Nation School also has 60 students in the Core Plus Maritime program.

“In 2016, the state determined that the maritime sector was the third-most influential industry in the state of Washington, following aerospace and IT (information technology),” Granger said. “That surprised the heck out of everybody, including the governor. So now the maritime sector is getting some awareness — and funding.”

Granger said she believes the places this foundational learning will take students are limitless.

“Life sciences, biology, habitat restoration, fisheries and aquaculture, sustainable seafood harvesting and processing, alternative fuels, maritime heritage, preservation or writing — you name it, and there’s more.”

Taking training in-house
“AGCW members Barron Heating and Andgar both are actively recruiting for their own in-house universities,” Calloway said. “In Andgar’s eight-week program, if you qualify, you get introduced to all aspects of the company and industry. They help you figure out what you’re most attuned to, what you like — and the whole time, you’re getting paid.”
Whatcom Business Alliance’s YESWhatcom program maintains a recruitment tool for Whatcom County employers, including a board for paid internships, apprenticeships and job training roles for youth ages 16 to 24.

Nonprofits are also stepping into critical roles in advising and advocacy. “Technology Alliance Group of Northwest Washington has been advocating for technology education and accessibility in Whatcom and Skagit Counties for more than 23 years,” said Meg Weber, former TAGNW executive director and current board president. Western Washington University’s director of community engagement and a lead entrepreneurship instructor, Weber has been a long-time member of Team Whatcom. “TAGNW member volunteers are doing amazing community collaborations through our evolving Whatcom STEM program to further our mission to advocate for STEM education, career-connected learning and digital literacy,” Weber said.

Running parallel to all of these programs, traditional apprenticeship is evolving rapidly at the state and local level.

The changing face of apprenticeship
In the March/April 2023 issue of Business Pulse Magazine, an article highlighted the significant state-required changes in electrical apprenticeship pathways that take effect this summer. Despite clear advantages, many worry the state will not be able to certify programs fast enough, and this will eventually extend to other trades down the road, if the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries gets its wish.

A bill just approved by the Washington Legislature, ESHB 1050, could aggravate the issue. “The bill would require municipalities with public works jobs over $2 million to have a minimum of 15% apprenticeship on the project … which is good,” Calloway said, “but the problem is the access to apprenticeship. Contractors are telling us they are having trouble meeting that 15% now. We need to increase the pipeline for new apprenticeship programs as long as everyone is meeting the same standard.”

Whatcom County could use more apprenticeship opportunities. BTC currently offers just two state-funded and approved apprenticeship programs. The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee program supports students enrolled in training related to aerospace manufacturing. BTC also oversees the AGC Inland Northwest Apprenticeship program, which trains construction operators, laborers and contractors.

A new Northwest Maritime Apprenticeship was launched in October 2022. “It trains marine service technicians who work on repairing, fitting, building and outfitting boats up to 150 feet — smaller commercial and recreational vessels,” Granger said. She and others volunteered hundreds of hours to find and develop the program and get it through a complex process. “It’s provisionally approved by the state and trains these technicians to work in wood, fiberglass, metal, design and five other areas under certified instructors. It’s an incredible feat.” According to Milton, BTC is working to become the new program’s fiscal sponsor.

Coming down the pike
A number of programs and spring job fairs are also in the works to connect students, workers and businesses in the community.

AGCW is organizing Construction Career Day on May 11 at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden. Up to 300 high school juniors and seniors from Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties are expected to attend. More than 25 contractors and subcontractors, public agencies and governments will present. “And not just the skilled trades,” Calloway said, “but things students didn’t know existed, like planning software, construction electronics, safety, ergonomics. Students will be able to climb on a scissor lift, try instruments and compact concrete.” Students sign up through their CTE teacher or school counselor to attend.

New facilities could also be on the way. Washington state boasts 14 regional secondary schools, called skills centers, that offer CTE training to high school students from multiple school districts. “Those programs are really capital and labor intensive, with state-of-the-art equipment and teachers certified to use it, so you can’t afford to have a program at each high school,” Granger said. “This legislative session, they are considering adding a new skills center in Whatcom County.” Granger is advocating for the new center to include another Core Plus Maritime program.

Despite the issues that have led to the current worker shortages, community leaders agree that Whatcom County is poised to develop its workforce.

“The reality is that when we pause things, in real life, it takes a long time for things to get back to full speed,” Milton said. “We just all need to slog through and make sure we are all aligned. And the more we can talk about what all the options are, the better we can work as a community to address these issues and help people get to work.”