In our view: Progress on the Jobs Front

Encouraging signs are emerging in state and local employment

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Placed in the context of academia, the employment issue in our state and community can be described as posting improving grades, but still a long way from graduation. Compared with the failing grades of about two years ago, a diploma is becoming a realistic hope.We usually prefer to begin with the positive news. For the first time in almost three years, Washington's unemployment rate has dipped below 8 percent. In November, it was 7.8 percent, according to last week's report from the state Employment Security Department, down from 8.2 in October.

Furthermore, this decline of fourth-tenths of a percentage point was the largest one-month improvement in more than three decades. Statewide, the jobless problem not only is being solved, but the rate of progress is accelerating. And that's great news for everyone.

In Clark County, November's preliminary unemployment rate is lower, but could be little improved when it is revised. Local rates are revised after about a month. October's rate was revised from a preliminary 8.2 percent to 9.7, and the November preliminary rate is 8.0 percent.

While it's discouraging to see Clark County continuing to lag behind the state in these statistics, focusing on the positive can be instructive. At the worst of this economic crisis — back in January 2010 — the local jobless rate had soared to 15.8 percent. Many folks saw no way out of the mess. Now, with that rate cut by about one-third, it's safe to say the worst is behind us.

Of course, "we're no longer failing" is not the kind of slogan anyone wants on a billboard greeting visitors to our fine community. And there is plenty of other bad news hanging around to haunt all Washingtonians. Last week, state economist Joe Elling pointed out that, while there have been gains in job creation, the improved figures are traced in part to discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work. Also at play are many others who simply decided to retire earlier than anticipated, and in most of those cases the retirement nest egg is not nearly as big as they had hoped or planned.

Add all of those workers to the calculation, and the statewide rate could be pushing double digits. That's not to mention workers who are underemployed at tasks far below their skills, qualifications and ambitions.

And while the current picture is becoming brighter, Elling added: "We're still so far from what we might consider full employment," which many experts say is at or below 6.5 percent.

Enough with the gloom, let's look at other improving grades in Clark County. On Wednesday, regional economist Scott Bailey said about 2,000 jobs have been added in Clark County since November 2011, a modest annual growth rate of about 2 percent. Disregarding seasonal gains, local manufacturing is on a slight upswing, and that's always encouraging.

Time to switch metaphors. Placed in the context of swimming, we've gone from sinking rapidly, to bouncing along the bottom, back up to treading water, and now finally making a few strokes of propulsion. That's a good way to start the new year.