Local economy: ‘Not happy times’

Numbers worse than the state’s, experts say

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OLYMPIA — Clark County’s economy is similar to the state’s overall situation, but worse, according to experts who spoke at the state’s annual economic symposium Friday.

“We’re just bouncing along the bottom right now, hoping that things won’t get worse,” said Scott Bailey, Southwest Washington’s regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department.

“It’s grim. We have high unemployment and low job growth,” he said. “We could be heading into a recession nationally; it’s not happy times.”

While the state’s unemployment rate dropped from 9.2 percent to 9 percent Thursday, Clark County’s unemployment rate remains higher, at more than 12 percent, according to estimates by the Employment Security Department.

“We’re continuing to lose construction jobs and we’re losing government jobs,” Bailey said. “Health care continues to add jobs, but it’s at a slower pace than it has been in the past.”

Many of the jobs lost in Clark County were also lower-wage jobs, a trend that can be seen across the state, according to Dave Wallace, an economist for the state Employment Security Department.

“Job losses occurred among low-income earners, while there was a slight increase in high-wage earners,” he said.

From 2008 to 2010, job growth of nearly 5 percent occurred among those earning more than $50 an hour, while those earning $10 or less declined 10 percent. Additionally, both state and county income fell since its peak in 2008. Clark County’s median wage of $19.20 per hour is near the middle of the pack of Washington counties but still lower than the state’s average.

Skilled labor needed

Regional Labor Economist Elizabeth Scott presented a survey of Seattle-area business owners and their perceptions of the economy.

“Labor shortages are starting to be an issue — that is, finding the right people that they need for their job,” Scott said. “They’re looking for specific types of employees.”

Providing the state with a skilled workforce could help, said Scot Walstra, vice president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council. Walstra works with vocational education programs and said this is something the state should be investing in if it wants to attract businesses.

“Vocational education really helps our communities prosper,” Walstra said. “I wish every community had a strong, well-funded skills center like Clark County Skills Center.”

Hope for recovery

Arun Raha, the state’s chief economist, presented the state’s economic and revenue outlook, which suggested that Washington’s economy may recover more quickly than other states’ because fewer homes here are following the trend toward foreclosure in Washington. In 2011, only 2 percent of mortgages in the state were 30 days past due.

Additionally, Washington’s unemployment rate is on track to improve more quickly than the nation’s, although it would not recover until 2013.

While the state’s aerospace, software, exports and agriculture industries continue on a positive trend, they are fighting against the drag from construction, and cuts to state and local government spending.

However, the major theme Raha recapitulated throughout his presentation was consumer confidence.

“Four years after the recession, we are still in the recession mind-set,” Raha said. “As consumers, we believe we are still in a recession. That cannot be good for a recovery.”

The economy will eventually recover at a very slow rate as pent-up demand sparks consumers to start buying again, Raha said. “It’s a slow way to get out of recession and that’s the method we’ve chosen.”