Last week, Rocky Mountain Colby Pipe Co. halted production and laid off most of their employees.

Rocky Mountain Colby Pipe Vice President Bill Quinn said he wasn’t sure how many people were given a pink slip, but said only four employees remain at the plumbing product manufacturer’s Pendleton facility. Quinn said “market conditions” led to the closure and the tentative plan is to refill the positions during the summer.

At a Pendleton Progress Board meeting Feb. 10,, Pendleton economic development director Steve Chrisman told a group of local leaders about the layoffs but added that Rocky Mountain Colby Pipe’s loss could be Keystone RV Company’s gain, along with other local companies.

According to an interview after the meeting, Chrisman put together an informal study on job vacancies in Pendleton in December. Chrisman said he expected the number of unfilled jobs to be significant but not overwhelming.

After gathering information from many of the area’s major employers, Chrisman said he was surprised by the final tally: 367 open positions.

The study comes with some caveats: the number of vacancies can vary significantly from month to month, Chrisman only gathered figures from roughly a dozen businesses and organizations and he wasn’t able to obtain employment information from some large employers like Blue Mountain Community College, Wal-Mart and Safeway.

But Chrisman maintains that the basic message of the study remains — Pendleton doesn’t suffer from a lack of jobs.

Rather than a dearth of employment opportunities, Chrisman said Pendleton is hurt more from its lack of housing.

Along with his own study, Chrisman also pointed to a U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies inflow/outflow analysis from 2011 that showed that more than 50 percent of Pendleton’s workforce commutes from elsewhere.

Chrisman said that Pendleton’s tight real estate market means that commuters choose to remain living in their home communities when they land a job in Pendleton, rather than relocate.

Chrisman believes that these commuters eventually take jobs closer to home, contributing to the flat growth Pendleton has experienced in recent decades.

“That’s a fragile workforce,” he said.

Some employers are always trying to build that workforce.

Cayuse Technologies, a Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation enterprise that provides application development, digital marketing and tech support, has about 150 vacancies.

Cayuse Technologies lead staffing recruiter David Filkins said his company’s main challenge is offering pay that is competitive with larger cities.

Being based in Pendleton, Filkins said Cayuse Technologies can’t offer the $12 to $15 per hour pay that a Portland call center might offer.

Given that disadvantage, Filkins said Cayuse Technologies is unafraid to present their entry level positions as starter jobs, labeling them a “building block” to management positions within the company or “the largest piece of a stepping stone” to a tech job elsewhere that usually requires a college degree and 3-5 years of experience.

Filkins said Cayuse Technologies staff typically focus their recruitment efforts locally. And if they do try to hire from outside the area, they often have them work from home rather than relocate because of the difficulty people face finding affordable housing.

Across the street from Cayuse Technologies is another tribal enterprise that’s always hiring.

At the time of Chrisman’s study, Wildhorse Resort and Casino had 40 vacancies, the third most on the list.

Wildhorse spokeswoman Tiah DeGrofft said the team’s frontline staff, which includes housekeepers, janitors and culinary employees, tends to have frequent turnover.

Although Wildhorse recruits employees from Hermiston, Walla Walla, Tri-Cities, La Grande and other communities in the surrounding area, DeGrofft said the commute hasn’t been too big of a hindrance.

While Wildhorse is comfortable with having a few dozen vacancies in a business with 850 employees, DeGrofft said Wildhorse is planning how to properly staff its casino and resort after a proposed expansion that will include a new hotel, bowling alley and event center.

DeGrofft said the tribes haven’t studied how many jobs it could add, but it will be “substantial.” Each employee will need a place to live, however, and the odds of finding it in Pendleton are slim.

——— Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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