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After the Crash: Central Oregon's displaced construction workers see few prospects in a changed world 

The building boom in Bend is over, leaving thousands of construction workers unemployed.

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Alan Maxim has been on his hands and knees all day, placing paving stones in a patio for a remodel project he's been working on for the past week. His hands are callused, rough and dry from the job and his back and knee, which he injured during his time in the military, pain him to the point that he walks with a marked limp. But he's grateful for this week's work because it's only been the third job he's had all year. The longest lasted just a few weeks.

Maxim is just one of thousands of construction workers in Central Oregon who has been struggling since the recession hit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction, mining and logging industries, which peaked in 2006 with approximately 8,900 workers in Bend, now shows a loss of over 5,000 construction jobs - or 63 percent of the industry. Currently, only about 3,500 remain employed in the industry and many are struggling to make ends meet.

This staggeringly large pool of unemployed and underemployed workers has created a huge challenge for employment specialists who are scrambling to match contractors and construction laborers with jobs in a market that no longer values their once highly demanded skill set.

A few years ago, Maxim, like the majority of his peers, had an abundance of work. "It was plentiful," he says. "We had to turn work down. We had to work on Saturdays."

It was 2006, building was booming and construction workers were flocking to Central Oregon by the thousands.

"It was incredible the number of construction workers we had in 2006 that didn't live in Oregon in 2000," says Carolyn Eagan, regional economist at the Oregon Employment Department. It was a modern-day gold rush, but then came the bust. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently declared the recession technically over; however, the state of Central Oregon's construction industry is far from recovered.

The major problem Eagan sees is that few construction workers have skills that are transferable to another industry. In addition, their age and income expectations often mean they are hesitant to take entry-level employment in another sector.

"These are mostly middle-aged men...who don't necessarily have the skills to apply to where the jobs are opening. Someone who was framing homes doesn't see their skills transferring into a receptionist in a dental clinic," says Eagan, author of "Where Have All the Construction Workers Gone?" an article that addresses the severe job loss in the industry.

With most economists predicting it will take years before the construction industry begins to regain even some of the jobs that were lost over the last three to four years, employment specialists like Eagan say the best hope for construction workers is to take the initiative, either through apprenticeships or going back to school. That can be a huge hurdle for workers who have been out of the educational system for decades and might not know how to connect with available resources. There's also the prospect of taking on more debt for households that are potentially already drowning in unpaid bills - not to mention forgoing the little work and income that might remain in the construction business.

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One program that some Central Oregon construction and manufacturing workers have been able to take advantage of is the U.S. Department of Labor's Trade Act, a reemployment program created in 2009 to assist those who've become unemployed as a result of increased imports from, or shifts in production to, foreign countries. Employees at companies that had mass layoffs during the recession - including Cessna, Bright Wood and Woodgrain Millworks - were able to take advantage of the Trade Act, which pays tuition for retraining programs at colleges, including Central Oregon Community College.

Michael Pinkston is currently three semesters into his retraining program at COCC to become a pharmacy technician. Pinkston was an employee of Woodgrain Millworks in Prineville, which manufactures windows and doors, but was laid off in 2008.

"When housing went down, being the low man on the totem pole, I was the first to go," he says.

Pinkston, who is 50 years old and had never attended college until this year, currently has a 3.16 GPA.

"Evidently, I'm not as dumb as I thought I was," he says.

But the retraining program is more time consuming than Pinkston's previous 40-hour-a-week job. In addition to taking four classes at COCC and one online, Pinkston completes three to four hours of homework each night and has a three-hour commute to and from class every day.

"I take the CET (Cascades East Transit) bus to Redmond. Then I take the CET from Redmond to Hawthorne Station, then I take the BAT bus from Hawthorne to COCC," says Pinkston, who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and doesn't return home until around 6:00 p.m.

Once Pinkston finishes his program in the winter of 2011, he will be able to make between $17 and $20 an hour as a pharmacy technician - almost double what he was making at Woodgrain Millworks.

Pinkston is a Trade Act success story. But the Trade Act hasn't been a blessing to all displaced workers. Shawna Elsberry, an academic advisor who works with many of COCC's Trade Act students, including Pinkston, says the program's strict requirements make retraining difficult for most and nearly impossible for some.

"Everything is set in stone as far what class you take," she says. "They have a very specific amount of time to finish."

It's Elsberry's job to determine what classes each student can take in order to fulfill the Trade Act's requirements in the time allotted, which varies by student depending on when the person was laid off.

Time and money aren't the only challenges that returning students face. Elsberry says many of the Trade Act students arrive at college unprepared for rigorous coursework. Unlike most college-bound high school seniors, many displaced trades workers need remedial studies before they are able to be successful in the retraining programs, Elsberry says. But, due to the Trade Act guidelines, students only have a certain amount of time to finish the program - meaning they need to start college classes right away.

"You take someone that's been employed doing a certain thing, then you're putting them into an academic realm. It's uncomfortable because they're not used to it and they have the pressure of these training programs," says Elsberry.

Still, Elsberry says that resourceful students are able to make their way through the program, at which point they have an employable skill under their belt.

While retraining is a viable option for some, many struggling construction workers question the benefits of retraining. Barry Roberts has been working in the construction industry since 1976 and is a jack-of-all-trades. As an independent contractor, he doesn't qualify for the Trade Act, but says he wouldn't want to be retrained even if it were an option. Although Roberts, who was once making a good income as a windows specialist, has had to go back to his "roots" - operations, janitorial, maintenance, minor construction - he doesn't see the benefit in retraining.

"It's crossed my mind. But being in the survival game that we're in right now, I can't make myself sacrifice that much time to go to school and try to come out of school at entry level." Now 50, Roberts says he'd be making less with a degree from a retraining program than he's making now cleaning up construction sites or doing maintenance at the Old Stone Church.

But for folks like Alan Maxim, who doesn't qualify for retraining and can't find work, they're running out of options.

For the last two years, Maxim has been pounding the pavement daily searching for other sources of income. He tried volunteering, thinking he could learn about another sector and possibly find employment that way.

Maxim volunteered at WorkSource Oregon and at the community radio station KPOV. He's applied for jobs at both places and was granted interviews, but wasn't hired. He got his Oregon Liquor Control Commission Service Permit and applied to "every single bar in Bend," without any luck. "I'd be happy to take a part-time job working in a motel at night," he says.

"Looking for work is harder than working," he says. "It's horrible. It's so depressing and daunting. You just want to say, 'fuck it.' But I can't. I don't have that luxury - I have a kid."

For Maxim, the truth is that for him and many like him, the industry won't be getting better any time soon. Maxim has had to accept help from family members and Neighbor Impact to make ends meet. He's been on unemployment, which ran out for him before the federal government granted an extension, and he's been on food stamps. Maxim supports his 16-year-old daughter by himself and he admits the last couple years have been difficult.

"It's dehumanizing," he says. "There's this social stigma about [receiving assistance]." Maxim is grateful for his current work, but isn't sure where or when his next job will be. He says if he finds a job - any job - he'll gladly take it.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, there are sectors that are showing growth or stability in Deschutes County right now, including educational and health services, local education and local government jobs. But, at least for the time being, there aren't enough openings to make up for the loss of construction jobs and relocation is a reality many will have to face, if they haven't already.

If Maxim can't find work again soon, he says he will have to consider leaving Central Oregon.

"I really, really love Bend," he says. "I've been here a long time. I'd really miss it - but if I got a job that paid me with benefits, I'd go."

Construction by the Numbers
* Construction jobs lost in Deschutes County between June 2006 and June 2010: 5,032.
* Last year nearly one out of every five persons receiving an unemployment check were formerly working in the construction industry.
* By the 3rd quarter of 2009, only 47% of those who were working in construction in the 3rd quarter of 2007 were still employed in the industry. More than a third of those workers who lost construction jobs were not recorded in Oregon wage records at all in the third quarter of last year.
* Oregon's Office of Economic Analysis projects that construction employment won't reach 80,000 jobs again until the end of 2017 - still well below the peak of over 100,000 jobs.
(Source: Oregon Employment Department)

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