To get a sense of how people are experiencing them today in the Portland region, we spoke with a variety of people who live and work here. Here are their stories.
Hopeful despite adversity: Yin Aye Naw, 42
Yin Aye Naw is a refugee from Myanmar, which she fled due to religious persecution. She arrived in Portland with refugee status in 2013, after first fleeing to Malaysia, where she lived for seven years. Although she earned a law degree and studied nursing in Myanmar, she has been working more menial jobs in the United States. She lives with her cousin Sai David, 32, and his wife, both also refugees who recently relocated from Memphis to Portland. Naw and David spoke about their experiences on a rainy November evening before going to work.
How did you get a job here?
It took three or four months to get a job. We have a case manager at Catholic Charities (who connected us with the Immigrant and Refugee Commnity Organization, or IRCO). IRCO helped me get my jobs.
My first job was at The Nines Hotel doing housekeeping and now I work at (a wholesale bakery in Gresham). I do packaging there. I work eight hours every night.
At first I held onto the two jobs, but just quit (at The Nines). Because I had no time to sleep. One job was in the day and the other in the night. I started The Nines from 12 to 7 at night, then the bakery was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I'd get home at 8 and sleep until 10:30.
It's hard to lose the income, but it was very taxing for me. I need another part-time job or something. Any job I can find. Before last year, I could not drive so I needed to take the time for transportation. But right now I have a plan to buy a car next month, so I can get places more quickly.
What do you like about living here?
Portland is a really nice place. Any neighbor is friendly, we can help each other. Especially we are free to talk about anything, when I want to talk I can talk. I don't have much family here. I live with my cousin and his wife. We don't have other family here.
What do you not like about living here?
Rent is very expensive. We can get only $10.50 an hour, but rent is very expensive. So we cannot take care of our country people because we have to pay a lot for rent. That's why I do a lot of jobs, I want to send money back to my country people, and my mother is there. But I don't have a lot left over.
(Sai David interjects: "We recently moved because our rent went up. She was living at Southeast 82nd and Division, and it was $850 for one of us a month. But then the owner changed and they raise the rent to $1,100 for a one-bedroom, for one person. Now we are living at 142nd and Division, a duplex house. Now we are sharing and our new house is $1,100, so this is a bit lower since we can share it."
Are you worried about that happening again?
Yes, I'm really afraid for the living costs in the United States. Taxes are very high too, I pay a lot out of my paychecks. Single people give all costs, we cannot get anything. Working time is the same, but the cut out is a lot for the single person.
Are you able to get ahead?
I am trying to back to school, but just now I am not. I went to the ESL program at PCC, but I cannot pay. It's very expensive, so just now I just stopped it.
Education is really good in the United States. But expensive. Just now I have to work more than one job because I pay a lot for rent. That's why I can't go to school right now. I'm working too many hours and it's too expensive.
Before I was working I used food stamps and Medicaid, but now that I'm working I'm not eligible. Now I pay for insurance, it's expensive. Mainly I pay for my medical insurance, about $160, and my salary after my food, home rent and phone bill, there's nothing left.
I earn about $1,800 a month from one job. If I get a part-time job I can save a little more.
What do you want to be doing in five years?
I have a dream of (owning) a shop selling my traditional things from my country. I would import them from Myanmar.
I need to learn about how to run a small business. If I have a chance I would like to take business management classes. When I worked law in my country that was something I worked on. But I need to learn how to do it in America.
That's my dream. There's not a lot of Burmese stores here. Our tradition is a really interesting thing, because the clothes are made by hand.
I want to stay here in Portland. I plan to become a citizen. It takes five years. We had a lot of suffering for a while. When we stayed in Malaysia we were illegal, so any time police came it was very stressful. Seven years of that. Then we connected with the UN.
If I have a chance I want to help, be a social worker. I would like to go to Africa. I have a dream of helping. I am really interested in helping with people who struggle with life. I understand it. If I have a big chance, I'm really interested in that. My shop is the little dream, but my big dream is to go around the world.
Do you feel, as a refugee, that you're welcome here?
Some people don't know how other people are suffering. I think people here want to help. Portland is friendlier than Memphis. It's more comfortable here for us.
(Sai David interjects: "In Memphis people were more aware of our skin. It's more of a mixed culture here...People are used to people from other countries.")
Are you optimistic?
Yes, I feel good for the future. I want to do good things, I hope. But just now all the work I'm doing is not my real position. Just now it's to survive while we stay here in the United States.
Sometimes I think, 'I took a lot of degrees, why am I doing this?' But this is the United States. So I am trying any job for experience. I was a cashier, (I did) housekeeping. I will try to do it. I want to know how to survive while living in the United States.
Making things work: James Gordineer, 25
A Georgia native, James Gordineer moved from an Atlanta suburb to Portland two years ago, sight unseen. He enrolled at Portland State, where he's studying mathematics toward a career as an actuary, and lives in the Goose Hollow neighborhood. To make ends meet, has also been working full-time. He recently switched jobs with the help of a staffing agency.
How did you come here?
At 23, I decided being gay in the south was a horrible thing. I also hate humidity. And I had a friend in Portland.
One day I got home from work and said I'm tired of this. So I applied to Portland State. It was a three-month transition period. That was September 2013.
How did you find work here?
When I got here I had no idea where to look for work. So I jumped on Craigslist. My first job was with First Presbyterian Church doing bookkeeping, but they couldn't give me enough hours.
So I found the temp agency I ended up working with (Northwest Staffing Resources).
The agency took all my stuff, they interviewed me, and I passed their interview. And then they took my resume and they would suggest jobs to me based on my resume. If I said yes, they would reach out and set up an interview for me. I basically sat at home and they found me a job.
At first I wanted to work with an architecture firm but they wanted more experience so the agency got me hooked up with a job at Conway.
It was far more involved than I was expecting. I got to the Conway office thinking it was going to be this back of a warehouse desk job and I spent two hours in an interview that I was completely unprepared for. My only accounting job before that was with a small family firm.
I was there for a year and a half under the premise of temp-to-hire. But they did a hiring freeze as soon as I started and then dissolved my position five months ago.
I've been at Unitus for five months. A few days ago I become permanent. I had to re-interview, and also my payroll won't come from NW Staffing anymore. It's a little bit easier, saves the middle man. I get a small raise, and the benefits package is insane. It's better than my mother's and she works for government in Georgia. I called mom and she's jealous.
What does that teach you about temp agencies?
Temp agencies are really good. They made my life here. I try to tell people I know that are aching for jobs to check it out, but everyone is super-resistant to it. It's got a stigma. I really wish more people knew, because I've got friends fretting over rent and food and they have postings for good stuff.
How did your experience match your expectations of our economy?
I didn't expect anything, to be honest. I didn't know anything about Portland's economy. I figured it was better than Georgia.
Lower-end jobs are in abundance in Georgia. There's a lot of high-end job opportunities in Atlanta, too, purely because we're a financial capital of the south.
Portland is more of a lifestyle/comfort over payroll place. I do find that to be a fair tradeoff. I am a lot happier here than I was at home.
What has living here been like?
I live in Goose Hollow. I walk to work and school. We lived on campus before I worked here. I had just been laid off from Conway. We didn't renew our fall contract, and we stumbled on the place we're in now. My roommate came home and just said, 'I found a place in Goose Hollow.' I know how lucky I was.
My rent is $1,365 a month, shared with a roommate. I go hungry every few weeks before payroll, once or twice a month. I am floating.
Where do you want to be in five years?
In five years, I'd like to be done with school and my actuary society exams. I don't know how easy it is to jump into a new field, especially here, because we're not a super big city. I definitely want to be making more, but I don't know if I will be an actuary in five years.
I'm pretty optimistic. I'm already doing infinitely better in two years than I was doing in Georgia after 23. I don't know if it's just age, because no one is going to hire an 18-year-old title clerk. I'd like to imagine that being happier living here has impacted my professional life.
What do you think we're doing well here?
I think the (urban growth boundary) does well because it forces everything together. Atlanta was very sprawl-based so small businesses had nothing. It was also not a very pedestrian city. My ex lived in multi-story buildings with first-floor retail but they were always empty because nobody was walking.
We have much better transit here, too. I can go anywhere here. I own a car but I let a coworker borrow it. I think having the transit system helps our economy. People are going to shop around their only form of transit.
Being outside of the transit area might not necessarily help. I used to live on Northeast 102nd Avenue, two blocks from the Gateway station. It was nice, but as soon as you start going further away from the MAX, you needed a car.
What concerns you?
We're less competitive in our size. We're not going to be a tiny city of high impact. But I like it that way. I'm willing to not have my New York Wall Street career in exchange for living in a nicer region.
I'm also worried about gentrification. My rent's already going up when my lease expires. It's going up a lot. I'm going to have to move.
All my coworkers are buying houses and I'm in a house fever. I could afford it in Georgia, but out here, I'm going to have to get married to afford a house.
It's exponentially continuing that people want to live here. I don't want to say, 'stop development now that I'm here,' but as a math major I understand the weight of exponential growth. That's going to take a toll. Already I've seen the impacts, even in two years of living here.
How does transportation impact your home and work life?
We talked about transportation costs when we chose to live in Goose Hollow. We did want to stay close to campus. I didn't really want to drive 8 miles to go to school and 8 miles home again.
By the time I move I might not be able to afford to stay downtown anymore. Maybe not 100th but I'll probably end up in the 20s or the 40s (avenues). For me, it's just rent, but my roommate doesn't have a car, so for him it's just bike or transit.
If I had to pay my previous gas costs on top of my current expenses, I'd be eating less. And I do eat rice with frozen vegetables every couple of weeks. I don't want to be doing it forever. I don't want to be doing it now.
Recovering a future: Jeremy Whiz, 21
A member of the Yakama Blackfeet tribe, Jeremy Whiz was born in Hillsboro, lives in Vancouver and works in Portland. Whiz is a graduate of the Native American Youth and Family Association's high school program and now works as an outreach intern at NAYA and has a second internship at Momentum Alliance. He is also a recovering alcoholic.
I am working as an intern at NAYA as the Sunrise East Community Outreach intern. It's a program that helps youth out with finding careers, rather than just a job at McDonald's, for example. And it helps you with college stuff, like helping you fill out the FAFSA and look for scholarships and help you with writing scholarships, getting a professional portfolio – it's a cool gig. I really dig it.
And I'm one of the members. I started off as a person who was in the program, but now I'm doing the outreach.
And then another organization, Momentum Alliance – I'm an intern there and I do a lot of data entry and what have you and I've been with them for two years now. They've helped me out a lot.
I'm building towards becoming a drug and alcohol counselor – even more so for the tribes, because, you know, I want to help out my people. There's a lot of my people are suffering, and not just my people.
It doesn't matter what color you are or what status you hold, addiction affects you somehow. That's what I'm aiming toward, because what I'm really doing is a lot of coordinating and stuff like that, and planning. So these are skills I could use for that kind of job.
I'm all right with these internships. Granted, the money situation's a bit frustrating. But I don't necessarily care much for the money, because I know money will come and go, but I'm gaining skills. And that's what I have to remind myself. When I don't have any money I'm like, 'I'm not doing this for the money.' It's not for the money. If that was the case I'd just work at McDonald's or something.
Why do you live in Vancouver?
Because my mom lives here. Unfortunately. If I had the money, I'd be down where all the cool people are at in Portland.
I'm going to Clark College. That's where I'm going this winter term. So I'm looking forward to that.
I'm giving it a shot. I have a different perspective than I did a year ago.
I kind of looked at what my next steps are but I don't want to have to worry about that right now. I don't want to have to necessarily future-trip about things. I just want to take it easy.
That's one of those cheesy AA sayings. 'One day at a time,' 'You're right where you're supposed to be,' and stuff like that. And those things are cheesy and stupid, but they work. They do work. When I freak out, I'm like, I'm right where I'm supposed to be, Things are A-OK and things like that. I have clothes, food and shelter.
Has your community helped you?
It's all about community. If it wasn't for the community, I'd probably still be out there. If people didn't care as much, you know, if I didn't get to know people and I was doing this by myself, it'd be a lot more difficult. You know, to have that accountability, to have people going, 'Hey, how's it going? How's recovery?' You know, just checking in on me.
So if it wasn't for either of these places, I probably wouldn't have a job. Or it would be a lot more difficult to find a job.
Now, I talk about it and think about it, I'd rather have a career and something that can help me with my career than just have a paycheck. And unfortunately, I have to worry about the money and the job and to me it feels like it shouldn't be like that. We shouldn't have to work two or three jobs just to afford an apartment and maybe some food. Maybe. Key word: maybe.
And it really saddens me when I hear about some of my people I used to go to school with, they're like, 'I'm so tired.' Well why's that? They're like, 'We have to go to work this job, this job, then go to college' and it's like – the world that we were born into and grown up into just kind of has us, you know, lagging in the first place, with all these expectations. It's like we have to have these things, and the things we need, the basics like electricity, water, food and stuff like that, are already kind of high and with the rent and stuff like that adding on top and if you want a cell phone, which is kind of a necessity nowadays. It's like thing upon thing upon thing and it actually frightens me, to be honest, a little bit.
Have you thought about what you would say to a 16-year-old version of yourself?
Oh, that wouldn't be good, 'cause 16 is when I started getting into everything, heavily. I was partying hard and stuff like that. In all seriousness, I'd tell them, don't do it. They're gonna be gone. All the people that you thought were homies, they'll be gone. You're not going to talk to any of them when you get this age. Don't worry about them, worry about yourself.
What kinds of things do you think a government could do to help people like you succeed?
Transit. Definitely transit is a big issue, especially for youth, and even for adults, too, because, some places, on the weekends, they need to do things, it takes forever. You basically (have to own a car). It took me two hours, almost, just to get by bus from here to the Expo Center. And it's like, I have to have to car to just do anything around there because it takes forever just to go anywhere, you know?
Whiz shares his story with young people on behalf of Momentum Alliance and NAYA, and has also spoken at regional AA conventions.
How does sharing your story help you?
It helps me heal. Even more so when I talk about my addiction and stuff.
You know, it's like, 'Oh, you're an alcoholic? You're an addict?' You're bad – (it) equals bad. You know, that's not entirely true. There are definitely bad people in this world. But I'm not one of them.
I'm just trying to change the context of that word. Even more so as a Native youth, because, you know, there's the stereotype of, you know, the drunk Indian and stuff like that, so I just try not to, try not to live the stereotype, you know?
Overall, I think I'm on a good path. That's what a lot of people tell me. That's what my sponsor tells me, that's what a lot of people tell me. 'You're on a good path, you know?'
It definitely feels good to get my story out because, like I said, it's a good form of healing, talking about it, you know, rather than just kind of shutting it away and just not talk about, because that just leads me back out there. I don't want to go back out there.
A vet's journey: Skip Palma, 68
Canby resident Skip Palma came home from Vietnam in 1970 to find himself thrown almost accidentally into a 30-year banking career. During the Great Recession he found himself without a job, and ended up turning to a place he never expected: a veterans assistance program at Community Solutions for Clackamas County. First they helped him get a job. Then they gave him one, helping other veterans find work. Although some programs lost funding recently, Palma – who is now a career trainer at Goodwill Industries – remains a dedicated advocate for veterans.
I am born and raised here in Oregon. My father was Filipino. I grew up in the Lake Labish area between Woodburn and Salem, basically truck gardening onions and lettuce. We moved to the Gervais area and began raising various kinds of berries, and I graduated from Gervais High School – oh, a long time ago, 1965.
I knew once I got out (of college) I'd get drafted. So I decided to go into the service and volunteer. First I went to the Coast Guard, because I thought, 'They don't go to Vietnam.' They said the only thing that would keep you out of the Coast Guard is if you're colorblind. It turned out I was.
So I wound up in the Air Force. ... The orders I got (after basic training) had CMBT SPT GP. Nobody would tell us what the acronym was for. So I got on the bus and the driver said, 'Oh that's combat support group.' Wound up stationed in South Carolina. Eventually I got orders for Saigon.
My wife and I had a kid coming, so they delayed my going. Three months after he was born I got orders for Da Nang Air Base. When we landed at night the plane stayed on the runway with engines running. You could see the fires on the hillsides, and tracer fire from the helicopter gunship. They ran a bus out to us because the plane had to take off immediately. It was like, 'Welcome to Viet Nam!'
I was over there a year. We had frequent rocket attacks, and I was told don't kick cans on the base because of booby traps. Turns out we were also exposed to Agent Orange.
I came back in 1970. The intent was to go to school at that time. I would have stayed in the Air Force except I had ground radio as my primary job, and you can count on every two or three years going somewhere remote. Since I had a family then, I didn't want to go remote anymore.
What career did you end up in?
The reality is I wish I found what I enjoy doing 40 years ago. When I got out of the military my plan was to go into computers. This was in 1970 and I went to register for a class at Chemeketa Community College and all the classes were full. I turned around and found a business class in real estate, and that's how I ended up in a banking and finance career. I went through all the crunches and the last one was in 2008. I crashed and burned.
So I was looking to try and find a job, and I saw an ad for help for veterans looking for work. It was from Clackamas County.
I talked to Ken (Bietschek, from Clackamas County's veteran program) and he found me a job training opportunity. He also asked me what I like to do. I said, 'help people.' He asked if I'd ever thought about volunteering. So that became the plan, for two days a week, helping the people who are coming in (to Community Solutions for Clackamas County) looking for help with their job search, resume, interview practice...the whole bit.
I just went to work, sat down helping people. Then they asked if I could do three days a week. That went on for a couple months and one of the people with Community Solutions left, and they asked me to take over his correction employment program temporarily. So I went from being a volunteer to being paid four days a week as a temporary employee. It was fantastic. Later the job was posted and I went through the interview process with nine other applicants and was hired as a "permanent" employee.
As time went on, the job working specifically with helping veterans find employment became available and that became my primary focus. In my entire banking career I always helped my employees first. It just comes natural to me to reach out like that.
What challenges do veterans face?
When I got out the only program I got into was the GI Bill for some school. As time has gone on and veterans have been in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts they are coming back with trauma, with different issues and injuries than we faced.
I hear these stories and read these stories and meet with these veterans; they come back and if they go and seek services, great. If they don't they're out there without getting the help and support available to them. Some of them are coming back and facing different work issues in the workplace. Some intense stress, with, 'If you don't do what I say there are repercussions.' Some employers are saying, 'You're too strict, you're coming across too harsh.' So the veteran has to adjust to that.
When veterans come back and they're looking for jobs, they're not necessarily ready to go to work right away. There may be housing situations, income situations, care situations. I've always tried to connect them to services. Because you need to get into the system. You might not need it now, but boy you're going to need it later.
I had a veteran I talked to yesterday. I worked with her a year and a half ago at Clackamas County. She suffers from post-traumatic stress. She had a job, but there was a flare up triggered by someone popping bubble wrap. She spoke to her employer, but it happened again a few days later. She was let go.
Did you seek services as a veteran?
I did not seek services because I felt those veterans coming back needed help more than I did. But I was pretty hard to live with, as far as my wife and kids are concerned.
It became a situation four or five years ago, I was having trouble walking out to the mailbox to get the mail, I couldn't breathe. I finally went to the VA and the care provider said, 'You need to go to the emergency room.' I said, no I have to take a conference call tomorrow. He said, 'well, go after that.'
I took the call on a Friday which led to another call on Monday. After that call I drove myself up here to (the VA Hospital on Marquam) Hill. They put a monitor on me, slapped me on the wheelchair, wheeled me to the ER, gave me aspirin. I'm on the table. They said, 'Do you want stents or open-heart?' So now I'm walking around with a couple of stents in my body.
Things were still tough at home. My wife said, 'You need to get help'. I went over to mental health. The sequence is I have to call a hotline first, they sent me to my primary care provider. Got some classes, got into counseling at the VA Center, which helped tremendously. Now I take half a pill a day.
If it wasn't for the VA I wouldn't be here.
What do you think needs to happen to serve more veterans?
Take a look at the VA. We're probably only serving about 30 percent of the vets in the area. People aren't coming in. There are still those with PTS (post-traumatic stress) out there who aren't coming in. There are still hundreds of people without housing. As a volunteer member of the new Veterans and Family Advisory Board for the Portland Region VA Hospital, we're trying to get the word out about care and services available, and give the care system our recommendations.
Between local government and national government don't tell me we're going to end veterans' homelessness this year. It ain't happening. I don't mean that disparagingly. But what do we do? Do we get people employment first or do we get them housing first? Where does this circle stop, who steps up and says enough is enough? I don't know.
Clackamas County is one of the few really funding this stuff and keeping vets a priority. Community Solutions had an effort called Hire Oregon Vets, but funding went away. Team Clackamas is still an effort, I don't think there's anyone else doing that, bringing different services in and saying here who is you need to talk to for all these things.
What's your outlook on the economy?
I read something this week in The Oregonian that said employment is just about turned around. No, it hasn't in my opinion. People going back to work are going back for less than they earned before. People who aren't looking any more are not being reported, and other people are underemployed. They're working part time.
I don't think these trends affect veterans more than everyone else. But there are more external influences that can affect their employability. That's why getting connected with available services is so important.
Some agencies say we have to get people housed, so they're stable and can get work. From an economy standpoint you say people have to get a job so they can afford housing.
I would tend to say (housing) is first. I know people who are living in their cars working, because they don't have a place to go. And there are some who don't have a car to live in. I know homeless veterans who could get a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher but there are no affordable housing units available in the metro area.
What can government and employers do to help vets get into work?
Look at what Clackamas County did: No holds barred, we're going after it. But many programs are not reaching everyone they need. It's starting to be diluted. Veterans when they're coming back they're becoming less and less of a priority and they have more and more problems.
Employers try. Multiple nonprofits and government agencies are trying to help. Some very credible programs are trying. Like the Hire our Heroes program: 100 to 200 people go to one of their job fair events, and maybe 20 percent get hired. But the word has to get out to veterans that these opportunities are available. How do we that? How often do you get told no or get disappointed that you stop looking?
Clackamas County has a phenomenal small business development program. The director is a combat vet. Their small business greenhouse program is not just for veterans, but Clackamas County lets vets take it at a much lower cost. There are a lot of potential employers in there who are veterans, veterans running existing businesses who want to help vets. There need to be more programs like that, giving veterans hope and support.
Flying in a different direction: Sara Fisher, 36
Sara Fisher grew up in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, and went to college with the hopes of an academic career in the social sciences. But as job prospects evaporated, Fisher felt a change was in order. In 2013, she followed a friend's advice to move to the Portland region. Switching gears to her lifelong love of tinkering on motors, she enrolled in Portland Community College's Aviation Maintenance Technology program at the Rock Creek campus. There, she's gaining an entirely new set of skills needed to enter a relatively strong job market in Oregon and nationwide. She's also breaking the mold. Only 1 percent of the nation's aviation maintenance technicians are women.
How did you come to Portland?
I was living in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Three hurricanes hit the east coast, and our area was hit really hard. FEMA had been there for a few years, and in 2014 my roommate said to me, 'I'm moving to Portland to go to Lewis & Clark College. Come with me – it can't be any worse than here.'
So we packed up the house, and made the move. We moved from a two-story ranch house and into an 850-square-foot apartment – definitely a Portland experience. So I wound up 3,000 miles away, and I'm the only member of my family on the Left Coast, as they like to call it.
What did you do before?
Right before I came to Portland I was working as an auditor in a hotel. So, basically I was in charge of the hotel at night while everyone else was at home. I did all the paperwork, made sure everything balanced, prepped everything else was ready for the next day. Just made sure it was all ready to run.
Were you happy doing that?
Yes and no. I got to do things my own way. I reorganized the paperwork system, came up with a few new spreadsheets. I'm a nitpicky person, probably why I like tearing apart engines so much – you have to have an attention to detail.
What was your previous education in?
I had a bachelor's degree in anthropology – and it did me absolutely nothing. I was a few credits away from another degree in biology but I said, 'No, this is not what's making you happy.'
I was specializing in paleoethnobotany for crying out loud. I could tell you all about human nature, about plants, and how people used them. I could tell you about the plants we could use in these planes! I could have put in a hell of a lot of hours, for a hell of a small amount of money, dragging my feet and being one of a thousand applicants for one position. It was going to be a gauntlet to try and get a position in anthropology. I was two classes away from a biology degree as well, but I just wasn't happy doing all of the lab work, the bureaucratic b.s. of it all. So, I just felt like, 'I can't, I just can't. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead, and go find something that makes me happy.'
What prompted you to look for a new career? How did you decide on this path?
I knew I wanted to work with my hands. I liked working on cars and motorcycles, and had done so a great deal of my life. I had finished a '74 Plymouth Valiant, and that was my baby – loved that car. But, I didn't want to ruin cars and motorcycles for myself, so I wondered what else you could turn a wrench on. It was like a light bulb, 'Planes! You can work on planes!'
I didn't know how to get started as an aircraft mechanic, though, so I did some research and found out PCC was one of the leading schools on the west coast. I called up one of the advisors, Dave Parish, and asked if I could take a tour of the hanger and he said, 'Yes, of course!'
I came by, and everyone was so welcoming. They asked me if I had any questions whatsoever, and they wanted to know about me as well. What do I want to learn? Why do I like aircraft? What do I want to end up doing? I said I wanted to turn a wrench, and they were like, 'Well, yeah!'
I found out what their placement rate was, what their matriculation rate was – having been through school before I knew how important those were. I didn't even think to look at how many girls were in the program because the atmosphere felt like it didn't matter at all.
Where are you working now?
Again, I work third shift. I work at New Seasons as a freight clerk. So, I'm throwing around heavy freight at night, coming in and throwing around aircraft engines during the day.
What do you plan to do next, after this program?
Next, I would love, love – once I finish the program and get my certificates – to get in with Columbia Helicopters. They have crews that go out with their helicopters, and I'd love to get on a crew, and work my way up to crew chief. They do international contract work for governments, companies or the U.S. military, and I would love to get on an international crew, and work my way up there.
What sorts of things give you hope or concern about being able to accomplish that?
Well, in terms of hopes, no one's said, 'You suck!' so far [laughs]. So I guess I'm not too horrible at what I'm doing here. And I enjoy what I'm doing, and I think that even if you don't go in initially with the skills, if people see that you truly enjoy it and it matters to you, they're willing to work with you to build up the skills you need.
When I first moved here, I was working in a hotel, and one of the guests worked for Erickson Air Crane. When he found out I was in the AMT program here, he gave me his card and told me if I ever wanted to get in with Erickson to give him a call. He said, 'You have excellent people skills, you listen, and your attention to detail is phenomenal – I can only imagine how that is going to transfer over.'
As for fears, I'm coming fresh out of school. I'm only going to have the base level knowledge. I'm not going to have previous experience with heavy-lift helicopters; I'm going to have basic experience with turbines and basic experience with helicopters in general. So I'm going to have this learning curve, and that's a fear. How am I going to overcome that? So I got books on helicopter theory at home, books on aspects of lift – it'll just be the hands-on experience that I need to get.
What drew you to aircraft? Were you always interested in them?
I grew up next to a municipal airport. Right out our front door, there was just a factory, and this airport. And there was this gentleman who had a bi-wing and a tri-wing airplane, and he would fly them around like the Red Baron, doing barrel-rolls and loops up and down the valley. I remember me and some of the other kids from the block would run up to the fence and watch. Sometimes adults would yell at us to not stand so close to the fence, but we were kids, we didn't listen.
If an elected leader were sitting here with you, what might you tell them about how they can help you?
My instructor has said that, when you're in the program, make sure you don't do too much work outside of the program. And, well, yeah, but you have people like me who if I don't work, I can't pay my bills. I can't do a part-time job, I have to have a full-time job. I'm a non-traditional student, I'm not living with mom and dad. I have a car payment, a loan payment, rent, credit cards, utilities, my phone – I've got it all. And it's really difficult to try and do that on what little is left over from my loans, along with what I would make from a part-time job.
As it is, I'm working overtime just to make sure my bills get paid, and I have cut my bills to the bare minimum. And there are some weeks where I'm like, 'OK, looks like groceries are going down to $50.' And then you're on ramen and macaroni and cheese for a week. You know?
So, yeah, make funding available, especially for trade schools.
A new outlook: Jamie Chabot, 42
Jamie Chabot moved to Portland in 2000 to pursue a career in advertising. Since then, he's been behind some very recognizable local brands' ad campaigns. But after being laid off in November, the divorced father of two elementary-age boys is reassessing his career's direction and its balance with his home life.
How did you come here?
I'm from St. Augustine, Florida. Went to the Savannah College of Art and Design. After graduating I did a short stint in Charlotte, North Carolina. My future wife at the time was from California so (after) I got laid off, we decided to move to California and give it a shot.
Unfortunately that was right at the dot-bomb time, so being a creative and trying to find creative work in California was next to impossible. I had a friend who lived here in Portland. We came up here checked it out, fell in love with it immediately and everything just kind of fell into place. I found a job right off the bat. That was 15 years ago.
In 2006, I had my first son. My other son was born in 2009. You've probably seen him in some billboards around town.
Where do you live?
I live in Parkrose, right off 122nd.
When I got divorced (in 2012), I had a very small amount of money left over. (Jamie and his ex-wife had been living in Kenton, but had to sell the house during the divorce.)
I was renting for six months, a little one-bedroom apartment with two kids, so I got with my realtor and was feverishly trying to figure out how I could get into a house.
I was looking in Milwaukie because I knew they were building the new Orange Line, but it was just unbelievable. Houses coming on the market and selling in the first day. Every time I found something it was sold, it was sold, it was sold.
I noticed that a lot of the houses out in East Portland were built around the same time as in Milwaukie. At the time I was working downtown still, and so I just went out a little further and I found one, right by (I-)84 and (I-)205, the MAX is close if I ever need it.
My kids are currently in the same school (in Kenton). I'm making that drive from the eastside over there pretty much every day. They're going to go to Parkrose School District next year. The school is right down the street, two blocks away.
What's your experience been like in the advertising industry in Portland?
I was an art director with a boutique ad agency, 10 to 15 people. It was everything from consumer to business-to-business. I was pretty much it, it was just me and a creative director who was a writer. I worked there for five years before I left.
The new agency was the same size. The work I was doing was kind of a mixed bag, art director, senior art director, associate creative director.
It's a very competitive field, especially on the small agency side. There's always been Wieden + Kennedy. You have a couple of other agencies of a similar scale if not in reputation.
Having Wieden + Kennedy here has made this a magnet for advertising. It has made this town have a very good reputation. Portland is a creative town, it's huge.
But it's a small pond with a lot of fish. Agencies like Wieden have their core people and hire the youngest, most talented people and work them really hard. They're building their portfolios and making pretty good money. They don't stay long and they just move around.
Being at my level and having 20 years experience it's harder to find the high-paying senior-level jobs, especially at the really creative shops. Because those people are looking for top-of-the-line talent, they're looking at experience like national work, national clients. Where most of my stuff by where I've been has been local and regional. You get pigeonholed very easily. At the same time, talent from all over the country is looking here because they want to move to Portland.
You were laid off in November. What happened?
I get it from a business standpoint, but I got five minutes for 10 years. It was like, 'Hey, we've got to talk to you a minute.' I'd just got to work, I'd been there 45 minutes, drinking coffee. Come into the conference room and they're just like, 'We've lost some business and there's no way to scale back except staff. We've got to let you go.' We'd lost a big account, (but) I was totally blindsided.
I was terrified. I've got two kids and I just came out of a legal thing with (my ex-wife) so I've got a pile of attorney bills, a house, mortgage, bills ... and then my job is poof, gone.
That's the thing with the ad business. From a small agency standpoint, (it's) very volatile. You're only as good as the clients you have and at any given time those relationships can be severed for any given reason.
What are you hoping to do next?
I'm really rethinking where I want to be, what I want to be. Company culture and a company's purpose and vision are very important to me now. Stability is very important given that I have two kids and they're going to be college age in 10 years or less. There's also my own retirement. I don't want to be here in two or three years in the same situation.
I've been looking now on the client side, because there's a lot of interesting companies in Portland doing really great things who don't work with ad agencies. They have their own marketing departments. I've seen a lot of really creative people go that route. I'll work on one brand and help make it really great, and be part of that legacy.
I'm seeing a lot of people hiring. Especially on the consumer side, many consumer brands seem to be hiring, big and small.
I'd really like to know there'd be an opportunity to scale up. Wherever I go, if I'm going to invest the time, I'd like to know I have opportunities. I don't want to be stagnant for another 10 years.
My radius of how far I'm willing to travel now is smaller too. Downtown (Portland) is about as far as I'm willing to drive. I saw plenty of jobs in Beaverton, Tigard, and I was like no way am I willing to drive there. The traffic in Portland is so bad that it's just not worth it. I don't want to sit in traffic. I did it, I've been doing it, I don't want to do it.
The big thing is if I can find the place that will give me the work-life balance that I need and it's a place I can feel good about working at. If I believe in them and what they are about and they believe in my ability and there is room to grow then I'd be OK.
How can the public sector help the industry grow?
I feel like there's lots of opportunities and diversity in Portland, which makes it exciting. One thing I do hear a lot of is this city makes it hard to be a startup. I have heard it's getting better with tax breaks and seed money and all that, but to maintain a presence in Portland from a small business standpoint it is hard to do. If it got better for that, you'd see even more opportunities for people like me to get in with these small companies to help them build up and become big companies.
Where we're falling short is infrastructure. I think the city is beyond the capacity it can handle. I think there's too much focus in this town on walkability and transit. I agree we have to have that component but the one major thing that's being neglected is our freeways and roads. I get it, we want to give people options for getting around. But one thing affects the other and if we don't address the traffic and road systems in this town it is going to continue to get worse and everything we love about living here is going to start to erode.