From pink slip to pear bars

Matching talent and opportunity

Kris Leiblein was no stranger to lay-offs when he got his pink slip from Northwest Aluminum Company in The Dalles last June. He’d worked in the timber industry for 20 years, getting laid off from the Hanel mill after 10 years and working at the Dee hardboard plant for four years until it burned down in 1996.

Until last summer Leiblein had worked as a millwright at Northwest Aluminum for five years, surviving a series of lay-offs at the plant before he was finally let go in one of the last rounds of cuts that reduced the plant’s workforce from more than 900 to less than 100.

Leiblein, a life-long resident of Hood River, was disappointed to lose what had been a well-paying job that he enjoyed. But, as in the past, he also looked at it as an opportunity to explore other career options.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Leiblein says. “The unemployment spans of my life have been very short.” Leiblein went straight to the Hood River Career Center — a place he’d only “dabbled with” after previous lay-offs. This time, he was matched with employment advisor Eric Proffitt and the two went about assessing Leiblein’s skills and interests.

Leiblein took tests at the center to “get an idea of what my capabilities were,” he said. Having been a millwright in one capacity or another for decades, Leiblein’s strengths were obviously in mechanics.

“That’s what my skills were and that’s the direction we were heading,” Leiblein recalls. Proffitt began researching all the options available to him. “In this area, there just wasn’t much,” Leiblein says.

Then one day Leiblein was getting a physical in order to renew his commercial driver’s license for his ongoing job hunt when a nurse mentioned that she knew of a new company called Gorge Delights that was hiring. Leiblein dropped a resume off at the company on his way home.

It turned out that Gorge Delights had contacted the Career Center to seek potential employees.

“Kris came at it from one angle and we came at it from another,” Proffitt says.

The position the company was hiring for — loosely called production supervisor — wasn’t exactly what Leiblein had been looking for, but he was intrigued enough to pursue it.

Gorge Delights, a two-year-old start-up venture between two valley orcharding families, had outgrown two previous work sites with its fresh-cut, ready-to-eat fruit enterprise. The founders had started the business by cutting and packaging a few pounds of fruit a day — mostly pears — for sale in individual containers in local grocery stores. After a few months, demand had grown to more than 200 pounds a week. Finally last fall, the company arranged to move to a 19,000-square-foot processing facility in North Bonneville, Wash. (See sidebar.)

Gorge Delights was looking for someone with a mechanical background to help set up and maintain machinery at the new plant, and who could also oversee production.

Because Leiblein had officially lost his job as a result of repercussions from the North American Free Trade Agreement, there were government-authorized monies available to him through various re-training programs. Proffitt worked to put together a “package” that would allow Gorge Delights to get a portion of Leiblein’s wages subsidized for nearly a year in return for providing on-the-job training.

“The (subsidized wages) are helpful to us as a new business,” says Leslie Brown, human resources manager at Gorge Delights. “And we’ll also end up with someone who knows the business from the ground up.”

Leiblein was hired in October and immediately went to work helping to get the North Bonneville plant up and running.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in a start-up,” says Leiblein, who recalls his surprise when he walked into the empty building for the first time.

“There wasn’t even a chair to sit in,” he says. “It’s been quite a ride.” Leiblein has done a bit of everything during the past few months, from helping to install a complex refrigeration system to acting as janitor.

“I work on whatever arises at the moment,” he says. “When you start small like this, your core group has to be multi-talented.” Now, production of the sliced fruit is ramping up — they’ve had a few days of slicing and packaging upwards of 800 pounds of pears and apples — and Leiblein is overseeing a crew of about a dozen employees. He also has been working to get the other part of Gorge Delights — production of pear bars — ready to roll in another part of the building. He hopes to have that going in the next couple of months.

Although Leiblein has a bit longer commute than he used to, he’s enjoying his new job — and the challenge of a new career.

“What I used to do, I did for so many years that it was second nature,” Leiblein says. “This is all brand new — the learning curve is tremendous.”

Proffitt gives Leiblein all the credit for his brief period of unemployment and his new-found career.

“I champion Kris’s constant positive mental attitude,” Proffitt says. “He did a lot of legwork. He realized the only person that was going to really help him get a job was himself.”

Proffitt has a caseload of about 120 people who are seeking work through the Career Center — and he’s just one of four advisors with similar caseloads.

“One of the toughest job markets in the country is right here in Hood River, Ore.,” Proffitt says. But there are options available, and it’s his job to help people find them.

“It’s showing people the opportunities, showing people the resources,” Proffitt says. People get tired of doing assessments, he says, but the testing helps both employers and potential employees make successful matches.

“Our intent is not just to help keep unemployment benefits going,” Proffitt says. “Employment is the end goal.”

Leiblein thinks that many people in similar situations to his aren’t using all the resources available at the Career Center.

“Any time someone loses their job, it’s scary,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re going to do. But there are a lot of (resources) available that people aren’t taking advantage of.” Along with a variety of funds and options for re-training, there are monies available to help pay tuition for people who want to go back to school, he says.

“Life goes on,” Leiblein says. “You have to go on and hopefully you can better yourself as you move on.”

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