County jobless rate hit 13 percent in October

State labor economist predicts it could top 14% this winter

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Clark County’s unemployment rate inched back up to 13 percent in October, as the already decimated construction industry shed still more jobs and many private sector industries cut back. Arts, entertainment and recreation also cut heavily. After adding 800 jobs in September, the sector cut 700 in October.

The county’s jobless rate had declined to a revised 12.3 percent in September, but before that it had hovered near 13 percent since April.

And despite industry promises to bring Clark County hundreds of new jobs in 2012 and beyond, state labor economist Scott Bailey has a bleak view of the immediate future.

“Unemployment is typically lowest in September and October, and highest in January and February,” Bailey said in an e-mail. He predicted that jobless rates could again top 14 percent this winter.

Clark County, with the highest jobless rate in Washington, stands in contrast to the rest of the state and nation. The state’s 9.1 percent seasonally adjusted October unemployment rate was unchanged from September, as private sector job gains made up for cuts to government jobs. At 9.6 percent, national unemployment was also even with September.

Hiring in some parts of the country has picked up so much that employers are starting to worry about finding qualified candidates, spurring — for example — Google to give all of its workers a 10 percent pay raise to combat poaching by other tech firms in Silicon Valley.

Bailey attributed Clark County’s struggles to this area’s close ties to Oregon, where unemployment stood at 10.5 percent in October.

Although only one third of employed Clark County residents work in Oregon, about half of unemployed county residents worked in that state before they lost their jobs.

“Our job loss, compared to the state, is almost identical,” Bailey said. “The job loss in Portland is much higher than the Washington state average.”

Hope way out there

There’s hope on the horizon, but it’s a long way off.

A number of companies — among them, RS Medical, BHP Billiton, Linear Technology, PeaceHealth and Farwest Steel — have announced plans to expand in Clark County between 2012 and 2014, and could eventually bring 900 new or relocated jobs.

SEH America and Fisher Investments, also both contemplating expansions, could also eventually hire hundreds.

But that’s small comfort for 28,130 Clark County job seekers, including about 10,635 who are still receiving unemployment checks.

Beginning Nov. 27, a federal program that has allowed people to collect unemployment insurance payments for up to 99 weeks will begin to wind down, making benefits available for only 46 weeks.

“By the end of the year, there could be an additional 3,000 people without benefits,” said Diane McWithey, executive of Share, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that serves the hungry and homeless, and that has seen demand for its services steadily rise.

“I am extremely worried,” McWithey said.