Strictly Business: Let's put jobs picture in focus

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

When you lose your job for the first time and you watch the career you thought you had vanish, it feels like nothing you've ever felt before.

I should know.

When the economy crashed in 2008, my magazine job went down with it. Feelings flooded by mind and body: helplessness, anger, shame, disbelief. Paycheck, gone. Co-workers, no more. Purpose, disappeared.

Thankfully, I had fortifications. My wife. My 10-month-old son. My friends. My books. I still had health insurance, because my wife, through her job, still had health insurance. I also received my piece of the national safety net: unemployment benefits.

And, slowly, I clawed back into the labor market.

Partially, that is.

I grabbed a couple of contract freelance jobs. I felt like I was back to contributing something financially, however small, to our household.

But it wasn't full-time work, the kind of work that makes you feel whole. I was what economists call "underemployed," also known in statistical-speak as "U6."

Although I finally managed to find full employment as a print journalist (miracle of miracles, I know), to this day I still have U6 on the brain.

That's partly because I'll never forget the shock of being a U6 myself, of getting partly locked out of the labor market. But it's also because I now research and write about Clark County's economy. I now talk to people who are struggling like I was only a few years ago.

You may not see them in your daily life, your commutes to work, your visits to the movies. But just because you don't see them doesn't mean they're not there. Believe me, they are. In fact, Clark County has a significant underemployment problem.

First, let's define our terms.

Underemployment isn't the same as unemployment. The unemployed are people who don't have jobs but who are actively searching. Clark County's preliminary unemployment rate in June was 9.1 percent.

Underemployment, by contrast, is a more comprehensive measure of labor market inertia than unemployment.

Most of the underemployed are involuntary part-time workers -- those who want full-time work but can't find it. The category also includes discouraged workers, those who've given up looking for work but who still want a job. Scott Bailey, the region's labor economist, estimates that Clark County's underemployment rate is at least 20 percent. That compares to a national underemployment rate of 14.9 percent.

Twenty percent. That's more than 23,000 people in Clark County who've been forced to swallow a shell of a paycheck.

The social costs are deeply troubling.

The internalization of a sense of shame. Marital strain. The ripple effect on children.

Economic studies show that it's not a deficit of skills or education that's keeping people from full-time work. That's a small part of it. It's largely a lack of job growth.

Knowing this comes as little consolation. Knowing it's a national problem that requires national action brings even less comfort, given our dysfunctional politics.

Nevertheless, I want to tell more of the story of underemployment in Clark County.

Not just the numbers, but people's lives. You'll find my contact information at the bottom of this column.

At the very least, perhaps it will show someone somewhere they're not alone.

Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, Twitter: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://twitter.com/col_energy; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or aaron.corvin@columbian.com.