Following a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's annual Clark County jobs fair returned Thursday, drawing what she and her staff described as a record turnout of employers and likely a record number of job seekers.
The Battle Ground Republican has been hosting annual job fairs since 2011, and she said the event began as a way to maintain recovery momentum in the years following the 2008 recession.
This year's fair had a different context, coming at a time when Clark County's job market is still recovering from losses suffered last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Today's flavor was different," she said.
More than 100 employers set up tables for the three-hour fair at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds near Ridgefield, and Herrera Beutler's communications director Craig Wheeler later said approximately 750 people attended. Prior fairs have tended to host closer to 60 employers, he said, and the 2019 fair drew about 300 guests.
Clark County itself was one of the most prominent employer participants this year, advertising more than 40 open positions across about a dozen departments.
The lineup of local companies represented a wide range of industries including construction, travel and leisure, finance, entertainment, retail and manufacturing. Many of them joined at the last minute — Wheeler said the initial roster was similar in size to previous years, but then dozens of additional companies signed on in the final couple days leading up to the fair.
"This is the most we've ever had," Wheeler said.
Some of the visitors at Thursday's job fair were looking for an opening to get back into the labor force. Kara Sansbury of Woodland said she's trained as a massage therapist but lost her job during the pandemic, and was excited to see a number of medical providers among the rows of employers in the event hall.
Other visitors said they had remained employed through the pandemic, but came to the fair to look for opportunities to change jobs or career paths.
"I'm just feeling like it's time to switch it up," said Justin Kennedy of Woodland, who said he's thinking about a career change after several years in the automotive field.
Another attendee, Brent Borgerson of Ridgefield, said he had only lost one day of work during the pandemic because his employer was an essential business, but he was on the lookout for a "forever job" with career opportunities and a lot of hands-on work.
"I just can't do a desk job, you know?" he said.
Herrera Beutler discussed some of the challenges that employers have reportedly faced as they try to expand this year, and said it's a good market for job seekers. She said it was incumbent on political leaders to take steps to keep employers stable, citing the Paycheck Protection Program as an example.
The event did not require masks, and only about half of the people in the event center hall wore them. Gov. Jay Inslee announced this week that he would re-impose a statewide masking mandate in all public indoor spaces due a spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations caused by the more-transmissible delta variant, but the new order doesn't take effect until Monday.
Herrera Beutler declined to say if she agreed with Inslee's mask announcement, saying she would need to look at the underlying COVID-19 infection and hospitalization data that informed the decision, but she said she objected to vaccination mandates. Inslee announced a vaccine mandate for state workers and health care workers earlier this month, and expanded it to education workers this week.
"I do not believe in mandating that everybody has to get the vaccine," she said, adding that she had been vaccinated but that the choice should be left up to individual adults and, in the case of teenagers, their parents.