U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene sat down with representatives from various Sky Valley industries earlier this month. She was out to discuss what it takes to maintain and improve a viable regional workforce.

The stop at the WorkSource in Monroe marked the start of her August tour of the 1st Congressional District. That includes most of Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, and part of King County. Workforce Snohomish president and CEO Erin Monroe facilitated the talk.

“We know that there are opportunities and great organizations working in Snohomish County and throughout our region,” DelBene said. “We have areas where we have a thriving economy and areas where we are struggling, and I think we have the opportunity to figure out what works, what really works on the ground to help make a difference.”

Transportation, technology, geography and wages were brought up as barriers to retention and hiring. Generational differences in employees and training possibilities were also touched on.

Kim Baier of OSW Equipment and Repair, Inc., said she was concerned about turnover. The Snohomish-based company will open a new facility in Maltby soon and sign on about 100 new employees. The human resources director said “we can't keep the people we have.”

“It's the lack of soft skills, not being able to get to work on time, not adhering to the break schedules,  lunch schedules that sort of thing, and then just chasing a quarter, chasing 50 cents,” she said. “A lot of times we'll get a call back that they want to come back, and we take them back, but that depends on the workforce you know, what's available, do we or don't we? It's just a real crapshoot right now.”

Jean Simpson was there representing GroWashington. She also runs a small business with about a dozen employees. Half of her staff have been there for nearly two decades, half stay for about a year and move on. The ones who leave after a short time are out for better pay and benefits, she said.

“They are always looking for the next best thing,” she said.

Doug O'Donell of the Snohomish County Public Utility District said it has been hard to hire. The needs of older employees differ so greatly than someone just entering the workforce. Younger people want higher wages, and those who have been it for awhile need more comprehensive health care plans, he said.

“It seems like we have got people going out who want one thing and people coming in that want another,” he said. “In our case as a utility organization that wants this transfer of knowledge to take place, but are in a difficult situation financially, to bring on the two FTEs with full benefits is really really expensive and prohibitive in most cases.”

A few representatives mentioned concerns with the lack of work ethic they see in the employees they do hire. Ivory Ore came on behalf of the Bothell-based manufacturing company Romac Industries, Inc. She said while the attitude seemed to be present in any age group, it was more prevalent in those who were just starting their careers.

Simpson said she attributes some of that behavior to modern advances such as social media. Ten years ago it was easier for her employees to focus.  

“When you could tell somebody to show up and do this task for the next four to six hours that was what their focus was,” she said. “Now I think their focus is pulled in so many different directions that it is really hard for this younger generation, and am speaking ages 18 to 26 just to understand 'no this is my focus.'”

Troy Rector works for a Bellevue-based CPA firm. He said he believes lowered productivity could have to do with an employee's commute. There are only so many hours in the day. As traffic congestion continues to increase, more of their time is spent on the road, he said.

Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas was also in attendance at the meeting. After hearing the comments he said what stood out to him was the need to encourage more businesses to move to the city. To promote the idea of living and working in the same area can help make the cost of living more affordable, he said.

DelBene wanted to know what employers thought about the utilization of apprenticeships to help mold potential hires. She said on-the-job training is critical to keeping up with how rapidly the skills needed in each industry evolve, she said.

“...This idea of lifelong learning is important, and also making sure that people have a chance to really experience the job as part of the education process so they understand what they are doing and what is required,” she said. “So that they are essentially a better employee, whether its soft skills or a particular technical skill.”

At the end of the hour, Monroe encouraged those in the room to keep up with discussions regarding workforce development. She said WorkSource will continue to host roundtables with different agencies, organizations and institutions to address potential improvements.

“Theses have been powerful, great conversations and I would like to twinkle my nose and have everything fixed tomorrow, but that is not going to happen,” she said. “It takes a conversation, and I will always say it takes a village. It takes the employers, it takes the partners, the schools and everybody has a really vested interested in this.”