Building a Better Workforce

Gorge Works Aims to Unite Local Businesses with Skilled Workers

By Kathy Ursprung

Gorge Works interns
From left, Gorge Works interns Andy Alvarez, Hannah Kempf and Kaleena Rodda gather after a professional development workshop. Not pictured: intern Miron Kosovan.

Furnishings are sparse but comfortable in the city council chambers at Bingen City Hall. Utilitarian tables and padded office chairs are the kind of furnishings familiar to most office workers. But right now, all eyes are focused on the floor.

That’s where Holly Hamilton, doctor of physical therapy and licensed massage therapist, balances on a therapy roller, demonstrating one of many techniques designed to help counteract the impact of repetitive stress in the workplace.

Even job interns are not immune to the forces of repetitive stress on the body. Holly’s goal is to help participants in the Gorge Works Regional Internship Program keep wear and tear at bay no matter where their careers take them.

Gorge Works is a new paid internship program spearheaded by Port of The Dalles with the support of Columbia Gorge employers and other regional organizations, including Columbia Gorge Community College, Worksource Oregon, and some of the Gorge chambers of commerce.

The port’s focus is on bringing businesses and jobs to its district.

“Every year, port staff and commissioners visit with port-area businesses to see how work is going and if there is anything we can do to help them grow and expand,” says Port Executive Director Andrea Klaas. “During recent visits, we started hearing that they would like an apprenticeship or internship program so they could train new employees. We found a good model in Oregon Works.”

When Oregon Works offered the Port the opportunity to host a training session put on by the McMinnville Economic Development Partnership and funded by the Oregon Talent Council, the port took them up on the offer and began to recruit partners. The program is patterned after the successful McMinnville Works.

Recognizing the interdependent nature of the Gorge economy, the port cast a wide net, drawing on employers from The Dalles, Hood River, Bingen-White Salmon, and Stevenson.

Major employers—including Insitu, Oregon Cherry Growers, Mid-Columbia Medical Center, SDS Lumber, and United Technologies Co.—were among the companies to express interest.

“I’m a big fan of all sorts of internship programs,” says Haley Ellett, downtown production superintendent at Oregon Cherry Growers. “I was an intern at Oregon Cherry Growers before I started working here. You grow with the company and get your feet wet in the industry. Gorge Works is a pretty great program.”

“Insitu is dedicated to providing opportunities to young people in the Columbia River Gorge, and thought the idea of the Gorge Works collaborative, bi-state, regional effort aligned well with its own internship programs for both high school and college-age students,” says Tammy Kaufman, Insitu community relations coordinator.

Insitu and Cherry Growers were part of the initial training and conversations on Gorge Works and decided to serve as host sites.

“This program opened doors for local residents that might be between high school and college, or who might be changing careers,” Tammy says. “It allowed an opportunity to source local talent.”

The program has three goals:

  • To help businesses identify candidates for skilled employment.
  • To provide internship opportunities allowing for the exploration of local, skilled employment opportunities.
  • To promote the Columbia Gorge as an excellent place to live and work.

Gorge Works coordinates the recruitment of interns and host employers. This year, that entailed visits to businesses and high schools around the Gorge, reaching out through traditional and social media, and presentations to community organizations.

“I see my role as really acting as a liaison to increase connections between business and workforce and working to make sure the needs of both are met in the process,” says Bayoán Ware, a resource assistant for Rural Environments planner working at the port. He is one of Gorge Works’ coordinators.

Port staff screen applications to ensure they fit the needs of the host employers.

Bayoán recruited local experts such as Holly to teach interns about professional development topics—a distinguishing feature of the program.

In addition to Holly’s “Your Self-Care Tool Box” presentation, interns learned about public speaking, workplace expectations, workplace ethics, personal finance, project management, work-life balance, and career exploration.

Physical Therapist Holly Hamilton
Physical Therapist Holly Hamilton explains the uses of a foam roller using Gorge Works coordinator Bayoán Ware as her subject.

“The professional development sessions have really been the most fun,” Bayoán says. “I think at the beginning I was letting the participants set the stage, but their engagement was contagious. As I saw them engage, it made me want to engage as well and become part of the group.”

One convenient aspect of Gorge Works is that one application can be used to apply for several internships.

While the process is convenient, it is also competitive. Successful applicants take the time and effort to put together an application package—application, resumé, and cover letter—that shows their skills to the best advantage, Bayoán says.

Gorge Works also has offered opportunities to help applicants—either in group settings or individually— learn to polish their application materials and their interview skills.

“We’re committed to helping people who need a little extra help to succeed,” Bayoán says.

Gorge Works has four interns in its pilot year: two at Insitu, and one each at Oregon Cherry Growers and SDS Lumber. Their assignments include community relations, governance and maintenance, accounting, and millwright helper.

Miron Kosovan is excited about developing his skills as an employee.

“Through professional development, it would be very helpful to know how to be the coworker or employee that would be an asset to a great employer,” he says.

Businesses have played a leadership role in developing Gorge Works.

“Gorge businesses sat at the table with the port to develop a program that will work for them,” Andrea says. “We implemented that program. Gorge Works’ success is based on businesses taking the lead.”

The port will look for business input to make adjustments and course corrections as it moves into its second year.

“The Gorge Works program has an opportunity to engage with local high schools and the community college this fall to set the stage for next year’s application process,” Tammy says. “As more young people learn that they could be part of a local talent pool to be sourced for local businesses, it could help expand the concept.”

Gorge Works could also help applicants better understand the skill sets needed in local businesses, she adds.

“It’s a great opportunity,” says Kaleena Rodda, an intern at Insitu. “It’s been life-changing for me already.”

Gorge Works seeks businesses to host interns for its second year. For more information, contact the port at (541) 298-4148 or Kathy Ursprung Email.