Breaking News
More () »

Where have all the workers gone? Business leaders discuss solutions to Portland's labor shortage

Nearly double the amount of baby boomers are leaving the workforce than those in their 20s are entering it, according to an Oregon economist.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Economists in Oregon say the state's labor shortage is not related to the pandemic but something that's been going on for years.

At a recent breakfast meeting organized by the Portland Business Alliance and the Portland Business Journal, the Portland metro area's labor shortage was the topic of discussion amongst a panel of business leaders and an Oregon economist.

Oregon's unemployment rate for September was 3.8%, a slight tick up from the unemployment rate in August of 3.7%, a level that is in line with the U.S. rate and Oregon's pre-pandemic rate.

So where have all the workers gone?

"They all got jobs," said Oregon economist Christian Kaylor to the group of business leaders.

Kaylor said the greater Portland metro region over the past 12 months created 67,000 new jobs, "more jobs than Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Columbus, Ohio, Milwaukee regions combined over the same period of time."

Despite the job growth, those positions aren't getting filled as quickly as they used to. That's in large part due to the lack of employees available.

Baby boomers, or those in their 60s and 70s, are leaving the workforce faster than those in their 20s are entering it, by a rate of roughly 2 to 1.

"As they exit the workforce, they're still consuming, they're still buying," Kaylor said.

RELATED: 263,000 new jobs in September, US hiring report says

Combine that with younger generations not having as many children as before.

With that gap, businesses need to think outside the box and get competitive.

"You're going to have to steal people from other industries," said Jeff Detrick, vice president of Swire Coca-Cola. "Shamelessly, you're going to have to recruit from other industries."

Detrick said his company started focusing on efforts on what he called, "Train to Retain."

"What we found was we needed to create a career path for people that came in at entry level positions who wanted to grow and wanted to make more money," Detrick said.

Anne Mersereau, vice president of human resources at Portland General Electric, said companies also need to rethink their hiring requirements.

"What are the other barriers to entry — and sometimes we can't see them because we're so used to having our certain requirements for a job and not realizing that those requirements are cutting out a certain segment of the population," she said.

RELATED: Fully autonomous vehicles still a long way off, report finds

Kaylor said in order to fix the labor shortage, two things need to happen. First, businesses need to go towards more automation, which is something that is currently happening with self-checkout lanes and self-order kiosks at restaurants.

"Grocery stores are doing more and more self checkout and I think this is because they can't find the restaurant workers, they can't find the checkout folks at the grocery stores," Kaylor said.

Second, Kaylor said people need to start having more kids. He said Portland is doing better than the national average, growing its age population by 8% over the past 10 years, compared to 3% for the country.

"But over 10 years, that's still not enough bodies for all the economic demand, including the economic demand for goods and services from new retirees to meet that economic growth that we should be seeing," Kaylor said.

Before You Leave, Check This Out