March 13, 2011 in Business

Area companies gained tech skills from laid-off workers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A frequent concern for someone taking a tech-sector job in Spokane has been: What happens if that job disappears?

Spokane, they heard, isn’t loaded with growing tech firms that they could turn to if the job they took is eliminated.

In 2009, when Itronix laid off 320 workers, followed by 200 layoffs at Agilent that stretched over 2009-’10, those workers were forced to come up with a Plan B.

Doug Tweedy, the state regional labor economist for Spokane, said the impact from losing those 500-plus high-wage jobs can’t be overstated. “That had a large impact here,” he said.

He and others, however, say the impact wasn’t completely negative. Though precise numbers aren’t available to track how many laid-off tech workers remained and found similar jobs, Tweedy said the community benefited by the sudden creation of an available labor pool of tech workers with strong skills in software, hardware and product management.

Tweedy said he sees data suggesting area tech companies have been adding plenty of jobs in the past 12 months.

“It’s clear from recent growth seen in Spokane’s tech sector that many other firms were able to benefit from a skilled labor pool and hired workers who were laid off,” Tweedy said.

Lance Sadler, one of the founding partners at Spokane patent law firm Sadler Breen Morasch Colby, hired three former workers from Agilent or Itronix.

All three work as technical analysts, helping other lawyers in the company preparing patent applications. All three plan to take the certification test to upgrade their jobs to patent agents.

Sadler said, “There are some very high-quality people that we were able to find (from that labor pool). We would have liked to hire more.”

Beyond reshuffling the tech workers in the area, the layoffs also triggered a significant influx of federal dollars into the Spokane economy and especially the education sector, said Judy Cash, program supervisor of the TAA program at WorkSource Spokane.

That federal money is provided to Spokane through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. Authorized by Congress, TAA provides training money for workers whose jobs were replaced by offshore jobs, or whose work hours were reduced by increased imports.

Since early 2009 Cash said she’s seen 51 workers let go by Agilent complete training courses paid by TAA. Another 76 laid-off Itronix workers also finished TAA-covered retraining since 2009.

There are another 230 laid-off Agilent and Itronix workers who’ve registered for TAA benefits but are either in the middle of retraining or haven’t begun yet, Cash said.

“Once you qualify for the TAA benefit, you can use it anytime,” she said. Once it’s used, that concludes one’s eligibility.

Cash said the act allows up to $22,000 in tuition, books and travel costs. Someone in retraining paid for by TAA also gets to collect unemployment benefits, without having to search for a job, Cash said.

One ex-Agilent engineer, 42-year-old Paul Robertson, enrolled in Gonzaga’s power engineering course last year, using the TAA program to cover the cost.

Before he finished the full course, Robertson took a job as a telecom product manager for Pullman’s Schweitzer Engineering Labs. He carpools five days a week with two other former Agilent colleagues.

At first, right after the layoffs, the collective mood was despair by many, fearing they wouldn’t find like-paying jobs in Spokane or North Idaho, Robertson said.

“I can say that we’ve done surprisingly well, many of us,” he said. “The salaries are fairly close” in those new jobs.

The net result, he added, is that a lot of area firms have picked up well-trained and experienced tech workers and engineers.

“If (those firms) succeed,” Robertson said, “a factor may well be the skills and experiences they gained by hiring us.”


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