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Labor commissioner Brad Avakian chats with job seekers
Photos and Story by James Hill
Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian stopped by the High Tech Jobs Group at the Willow Creek Center on Friday, May 25. Avakian regularly visits with the group, led by Becky Meier, to discuss initiatives and functions of his office, and answer questions or address concerns by the 30 or so job seekers in attendance.
A Washington County native, Avakian is an ex-civil rights lawyer as well as state senator and house representative. He currently leads the Bureau of Labor and Industries, which is charged with protecting employment rights, advancing employment opportunities, and protecting access to housing and public accommodations free from discrimination.
His office is one of five statewide elected officials and he oversees about 87 employees. Last year, the bureau fielded 15,000 calls from Oregon businesses looking for guidance and more than 60,000 calls from Oregonians wanting to discuss worker rights, compensation issues or discrimination. Avakian said his office has prosecuted 5,000 cases that have totaled about $14 million that went back into pockets of workers who were treated unfairly on job.
Avakian said his office wants to reduce the average age of vocational apprentices, which stands at 26 years versus a decade ago when it was 19. He said the average age of construction and maintenance workers is about 50 years old.
“Community colleges are telling us they are doing up to a year’s worth of remedial education with students before they can get onto a career path and the average age of community college students is the late 20s early 30s,” Avakian said.
He said that the elimination of shop classes and similar vocational training in middle and high schools has led to a lost decade for many students who search those year’s for their career path. But he said a bill aimed at returning career education curriculum to middle and high schools passed and this month they awarded grants around the state to restore 21 vocational programs.
“It was a shining star of what has happened, the only one probably, in public education this time,” added Avakian, who eventually wants to restore every shop class in Oregon, especially additional programs like music and art. “This is the first step in building what will be become again the nation’s best system for development of a workforce that you can’t find anywhere.”
Attendees wanted to know about employment and the future of industry in the state. Currently, Oregon’s unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, which has come down mainly from the fact people have stopped collecting benefits. Avakian added that Oregon is well placed to grow in two major sectors.
“The reason I’m hopeful for Oregon is that it’s sitting better than any state in the country right now with the potential to create jobs because of the two industry sectors growing the fastest right now – green jobs and healthcare,” he said. “Oregon is known for very smart natural resources management and with OHSU and the Oregon Health Plan and other leading innovations we’ve made in healthcare people see us as a national leader.”