Clark County’s jobless rate dips below 12 percent

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Clark County’s unemployment rate in September dipped below 12 percent for the first time in nearly three years, data released Tuesday showed.

The last time the county’s jobless rate moved below 12 percent was in January 2009 when it was 11.8 percent.

But don’t break out the party hats and kazoos just yet.

September’s 11.6 percent unemployment rate was more about job seekers dropping out than employers staffing up — a trend that mirrors what’s happening nationally.

As the economy has remained weak and jobs scarce, some unemployed workers have simply given up looking for work, Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department, said Tuesday.

As a result, the labor force participation rate has fallen and, along with it, the unemployment rate, Bailey said, putting the seemingly positive September jobless rate into sobering context.

That’s not to say employers aren’t still hiring. It’s just that they’re not hiring at a fast enough clip to keep pace with population growth. What’s more, government job cuts are blunting the gains made in the private sector, as Bailey’s “Southwest Washington Labor Market News” report on Tuesday illustrates.

‘A major drag’

Clark County employers have added a net 800 jobs in the past 12 months, a small climb that likely left October’s jobless rate at 11.4 percent, according to Bailey.

In the county’s private sector, employers have added 1,300 jobs since October 2010. Public sector employers, however, shed 500 jobs during the same period, leaving a net gain of 800 jobs year over year.

It’s a situation in which employment in Clark County is “trending upward,” Bailey reported Tuesday, “albeit in a two steps forward, one step back patter.”

The fuel for the regional economy’s two steps forward is coming from private employers, where the professional and business services sector, for example, has added 900 jobs since October 2010. Health care gained 400 jobs during the same year-long period.

Kicking the economy back a step is the public sector, where K-12 education payrolls have decreased by 500 jobs since October 2010. Moreover, local government employment is down 200 jobs from year-ago levels.

Federal government employers in Clark County added 200 jobs in the past 12 months, leaving a net loss of 500 jobs in local public sector employment.

While “private sector hiring has perked up a bit,” Bailey said, public sector job cuts will continue in the months ahead.

“Government has become a major drag on the local economy,” Bailey wrote in his report on the labor market, issued Tuesday.

‘Discouraged workers’

Though Clark County’s economy remains weak, the unemployment rate is lower than it was during the depths of the recession, which wiped out more than 10,000 Clark County jobs, or roughly 7 percent of the county’s nonfarm job base, between early 2008 and earlier this year.

The county’s jobless rate was 14.1 percent in July 2009. It peaked at 15.7 percent in January 2010, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Preliminary figures released Tuesday show the county posted a 9.1 percent unemployment rate in October. However, that initial estimate is likely to increase by a couple of percentage points when unemployed Clark County residents who previously worked in Oregon are included in calculations.

In Washington, employers have added a net 31,900 jobs in the past 12 months, lowering the state’s unemployment rate in October to an estimated 9 percent.

However, Bailey said, the state’s year-over-year job growth “stayed low at 1.1 percent.” Plus, the state’s labor force has decreased by nearly 44,000 “as discouraged workers have quit looking for work, thus lowering the official unemployment rate.”

Unemployment rates fell in 36 states in October, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Nationally, the jobless rate ticked down to 9 percent in October, from 9.1 percent the previous month.

In Oregon, the labor market “didn’t make any headway in October,” according to Bailey, although the state has seen job growth of 1.5 percent since October 2010. The jobless rate in Oregon remains high at 9.5 percent.

The Portland metro area is faring slightly better than the rest of Oregon, Bailey said. While the metro area’s jobless rate is still high at 9.1 percent, it experienced year-over-year job growth of 1.5 percent, matching Oregon’s 1.5 percent.

And Portland’s year-over-year improvement in employment “was due entirely to job growth,” Bailey said, “as opposed to discouraged workers.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com