Hermiston employment: Just add water

Workers sort red onions on a conveyor belt while working at the River Point Farms packaging facility Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, outside of Hermiston.

When it comes to attracting employers, Hermiston has a lot of advantages.

Those advantages have helped spur job growth in the area: According to census data assistant city manager Mark Morgan shared with the city council recently, from 2005 to 2015 the greater Hermiston area was responsible for 83 percent of the job growth in Umatilla and Morrow counties. While the city has had a few setbacks since then — notably the closure of the Hermiston Foods plant — it has seen a steady flow of new jobs from employers such as Amazon, Shearer’s Foods, Good Shepherd Health Care System and the Holiday Inn Express that opened in 2017.

The city sits at the intersection of two major interstates and a few state highways, with a rail line, port and a municipal airport thrown into the mix. The abundance of transportation options makes it a logical choice for shipping companies such as UPS and FedEx and distribution centers such as Wal-Mart. The location near the Columbia River and McNary Dam also lends itself to cheap power and water, which draws in data centers and food-processing plants.

But Morgan says Hermiston’s location is good for more than transportation and utilities. Most families have two incomes these days, and often when one person gets a job in the area they have a significant other who is looking for a new job, too. Choosing Hermiston puts them right in the middle of the laborshed, with thousands of jobs in Pendleton, Boardman and the Tri-Cities just a half-hour commute away.

“Nobody wants to get stuck out on the bleeding edge of the employment pool,” Morgan said, citing a reason some people choose to work and live in Hermiston instead of Boardman.

Morgan said when he meets with potential employers considering an expansion or new facility in Hermiston, the number one question they have for him is usually whether they will be able to find workers to fill positions, which is why Hermiston’s central location is important.

In some ways, Hermiston takes a less hands-on approach to economic development than Pendleton. The city of Pendleton has an economic development director and a full-time convention center manager, and also contributes money for the associate director of the Pendleton Development Commission and a Pendleton Downtown Association director. It has focused on development of an unmanned aerial systems range at the Pendleton Airport and is moving forward with plans for an industrial park there.

Hermiston, on the other hand, is relying on its parks and recreation department to run the Hermiston Community Center, has its city planner Clint Spencer taking point on the urban renewal agency downtown, isn’t financially involved in the Hermiston Downtown Association and doesn’t have an official economic development director.

The city has invested in economic development, however. Morgan credited Hermiston’s regional water system, which the city implemented in the mid-1990s, with making many of Hermiston’s major employers possible. And when people move into town to work for one of the largest employers, it often creates a trickle-down effect of more jobs in areas like retail and education.

“The formula is pretty simple around here: Just add water, and you will get jobs,” Morgan said.

The city continues to “add water,” extending the system to the yet-undeveloped Cook Industrial Site south of town and starting the groundwork for a new water tower on the northeast side of town.

The water tower project is more to encourage housing development than industrial development, but more housing means more workers for potential employers to consider when moving to town.

Finding employees can be hard. Shearer’s Foods expanded in Hermiston in 2014, adding 114 jobs. The company is holding a job fair Friday at Worksource Hermiston, 950 S.E. Columbia Drive, Suite B, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to recruit for positions ranging from reach truck operators to mechanics.

Worksource Oregon is a statewide network of public and private partners that provides employers and employees a one-stop shop to help match job seekers with open positions created by turnover or by new job growth.

Manager Tara Morrell, with the Oregon Employment Department, said the recruitment events at Worksource Oregon’s Hermiston site can help area employers come into contact with a diverse range of candidates in a few hours that they would have otherwise taken weeks to see applications from. Events like the one for Shearer’s on Friday have been a successful strategy in the Hermiston area, she said.

“We customize recruitment strategies to fit the needs of the employer,” she said.

She said the success of Worksource Hermiston depends on maintaining a good relationship with local employers.

Agencies at Worksource Hermiston also help job seekers, offering assistance with applications and résumés, free workshops, skill assessments, copy/fax machines and free internet access for job-hunting.

According to the employment department’s data website qualityinfo.org, unemployment in Eastern Oregon hit a record low of 4.7 percent in July. That was down from a high point of 11.2 percent in May 2009.


Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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