For yet another year, Grays Harbor County had the highest unemployment numbers in the state.
And for yet another year, WorkSource Grays Harbor Manager Ron Schmidt was on the front lines to help his neighbors find work.
“Ron really is the best man for the job, and that’s why we’re successful,” said Mike Michener, WorkSource Grays Harbor’s other manager. “He’s high-energy, he really knows his programs and he seems to know everyone in the county.”
And Schmidt has an ability to connect with workers that stems from his own employment history. He was laid off from his job at Grays Harbor Paper in 1993 after having worked at the mill for 25 years. He was forced to start a whole new career while in his 40s, and empathizes with the people walking through WorkSource’s front doors for the first time.
“They’ll come through the door as someone who’s quite new to the process, and it’s pretty hard to walk through that door at times,” Schmidt said. “Most have rarely been in an office like this. They were probably hired right off the street with just a high school diploma. Some people don’t even have that.”
Mill to office
Schmidt hadn’t intended to become a mill worker right after high school — he initially planned to go to college, taking college prep classes before graduating from Aberdeen High School in 1968. He started school at Grays Harbor College that September, but within three weeks he realized that he wasn’t ready to continue his education.
And without college enrollment to protect him, it became clear that Schmidt would end up in the military — either by volunteer or by draft. So he opted to join the Navy that November on a 120 day delay program, meaning he didn’t ship out until March of 1969. He took a job at Grays Harbor Paper in the mean time.
“Of course the Vietnam War was raging, and it was either go into the Navy or get drafted,” Schmidt said. “I was lucky enough to get the job before I went in, and when I got out four years later, they had to hire me back under the GI Bill of Rights.”
He eventually became a union official, serving as vice president, secretary and in other positions. And because of his experience, in 1992 Schmidt became a key lobbyist for the mill to remain open. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and Grays Harbor Paper closed in early 1993.
But Schmidt already had a job lined up with the Pacific Mountain Private Industry Council, now called the Workforce Development Council. The council had applied for a series of grants to help the 600 workers who were laid off when the mill closed. Schmidt was hired as a peer counsellor for a 30-month project.
“Hoquiam was just gutted, it was really hurting,” Schmidt said. “And it’s hurting again with the loss of the paper mill this time around.”
Grays Harbor’s original workforce development facility was temporary, and Schmidt and the other employees operated out of five trailers assembled on a vacant lot. But the need for employment aide on the Harbor never went away, so Schmidt’s job became permanent. He later became manager of the agency, which became WorkSource Grays Harbor in 2000.
“In February I’ll have worked here for 21 years, and it was only supposed to be a 30 month job,” Schmidt said.
WorkSource Grays Harbor operates as a cooperative between two agencies: the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council and the Washington State Department of Employment Security. Therefore, the agency has two managers. Schmidt works for Pacific Mountain and his counterpart, Mike Michener, works for the state.
“We integrate our staff, and customers don’t really know who works for who,” Schmidt said. “And it doesn’t really matter, because we have the same goals. What we do is deliver services to our mutual customers, whether it be retraining, job searching, resume writing and interviewing.”
Schmidt also works with Greater Grays Harbor Inc. to determine the economic needs of the community. He calls it a “supply and demand” relationship.
WorkSource has worked well with local employers over the past 13 years — so well that the agency has been recognized on state and national levels several times.
“This agency was on the cutting edge of career development centers with multiple agencies working in tandem,” Schmidt said. “And in 2002, we were selected as the best one-stop center in the country.”
WorkSource’s programs cover low-income adults, veterans, youth and displaced workers — people who have been laid off. Displaced workers must also have a skill set that isn’t in demand in the region.
And those who don’t qualify for any programs can use other WorkSource resources.
“We have classes periodically throughout the month — interviewing classes, resume writing, that sort of thing. They can also come in and use our resources,” Schmidt said. “In the resource room, the computers are all loaded up with information on job searching.”
Job seekers can also use the WorkSource website, which usually has about 170 local jobs listed at any given time. Schmidt said this number is considerably smaller than in the early 2000s, when WorkSource listed about 300 jobs. But at the beginning of the recession, the agency listed as few as 80 jobs.
Schmidt also knows how to keep spirits high, even when discussing uncomfortable subjects. He advocates for most local causes, serving on the Grays Harbor Health and Human Services Advisory Board, Grays Harbor Youth Alliance and Grays Harbor College Worker Retraining Development Board.
He also raises money for Beyond Survival, a sexual assault resource center, by dressing as his alter-ego Helga each year.
“He makes an incredibly ugly woman, but he tries anyway,” Michener said. “He’s not afraid to do anything if it’s for a good cause.”
Amelia Dickson: 360-537-3936 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Amelia on Twitter.