Lower jobless rate fails to reflect reality

County has seen rise in temporary employment, however

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Look beyond the artificially low February unemployment numbers released Thursday, and the usual picture emerges of a Clark County economy bouncing along the bottom, with only faint hints of recovery.

But managers in Vancouver employment agencies offer anecdotal evidence of springtime flowering of temporary work, at least for persistent job seekers. Economists look for a rise in temporary employment as a signal that employers may soon add permanent jobs.

“I would say now there’s at least light at the end of tunnel,” said DeLano Morgan, manager of the Employers Overload employment agency located near Westfield Vancouver Mall. Morgan said temporary jobs started to pick up last month and have increased even more in March.

Clark County officially posted a 10.2 percent February unemployment rate, but economist Scott Bailey expects a significant rise to the 13 percent range after claims of Clark County residents who work in Oregon are added in. The state’s revised employment numbers for January show 13.2 percent unemployment in Clark County — far higher that the initial 10.6 percent estimate that didn’t include the Oregon claims.

Cowlitz County’s 13 percent unemployment rate for February was unchanged. Wahkiakum County’s unemployment dropped to 14.1 percent from January’s 15.9 percent.

“The bleeding has stopped but the healing has not taken hold yet,” said Bailey, regional economist for the Department of Employment Security.

Clark County’s unemployment hit 14.8 percent in February 2010, and the recession’s low point was 15.7 percent unemployment last January.

The county lost 300 jobs this February, when seasonal adjustments are taken into account, a reversal from the 200 job increase reported in the revised numbers for January. Areas showing strength included manufacturing, finance, business services including temporary staffing, and education, Bailey said. Construction is hitting bottom as commercial and government projects that had been in the pipeline are completed. The health care industry is burdened by a large increase in charity care and by the fact that people are putting off visits to the doctor, Bailey noted.

About 2,700 county residents have exhausted their unemployment benefits, which can extend for 99 weeks. Bailey expects another 500 to run out of benefits each month.

Encouraging signs

There are signs of encouragement for job-seekers. WorkSource Vancouver reports that it placed 1,312 people in jobs between last July and Feb. 11 of this year, up from 963 people in the same period a year earlier. Most are permanent jobs, says Patrick Williams, the business services manager for Clark County.

Job seekers say they’re seeing more temporary work as they try to get on their feet. Justin Miller of Battle Ground said he struggled to find work two years ago before entering Jobs Corps. He graduated in November He’s now attending Clark College and finding temporary work in manufacturing and production businesses. He is about to begin a three-month training program in automotive technology at the Clark County Skills Center that could lead to a job at an oil-change center or auto service center. “The more education I get, the more opportunities there will be,” said Miller, 25.

Robin Zimmerman of Vancouver said she has found steady work through the Vancouver office of the Command Center Inc. employment agency as a traffic-control flagger and other jobs. Zimmerman, who is 46 and has grown children, can earn up to $13 an hour as a flagger and has medical coverage through the Command Center.

She enjoys the work and plans to continue temporary employment. “I might not make a killing but I do take care of myself,’ she said.

Still, employment agencies say unskilled workers are struggling as employers have become more selective even about temporary hires. “People in lower-skilled positions have to reinvent themselves to make themselves competitive in the work market,” said Chris Crongeyer ,branch manager for Manpower Inc. in Vancouver. “Employers are very particular about the skills they need. That’s the biggest change.”