Economist: Clark County's labor market 'all over the map'

He says it has remained flat despite adding 1,200 jobs in a year

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Clark County's economy added 1,200 jobs in the 12 months through May, the state Employment Security Department reported Tuesday. The county's preliminary unemployment rate for May is 9.4 percent.

But that's no reason to celebrate. A closer look at month-to-month job growth shows the county's labor market has essentially remained flat since the beginning of this year, said Scott Bailey, the region's labor economist.

For example, the county lost 500 jobs in February and another 100 jobs in March, and then climbed out of that hole — and then some — by adding 800 jobs in April.

"It's kind of all over the map," Bailey said. "But if you add them all up, it's kind of flat."

In May, the county added 500 jobs. That may still sound positive, Bailey said, but the county needed to add 600 more jobs on top of that — for a total of 1,100 jobs that month — to be considered as growing at a healthy clip.

On the bright side, the number of jobless insurance claims filed by Clark County residents during the first six months of unemployment plummeted by 12 percent, or about 500 claims, last month.

That drop in jobless benefit claims suggests people found employment, Bailey said, although the sluggishness in the month-to-month payroll numbers argues otherwise.

The differing numbers show Clark County's economy giving off "mixed signals," Bailey wrote in his Southwest Washington Labor Market News report.

More government job cuts

In Clark County's private sector, employers added 1,900 jobs between May 2011 and 2012. Leading the way were manufacturing (up 500 jobs), wholesale trade (up 400 jobs), health care (up 300 jobs), professional services (up 200 jobs) and retail trade (up 200 jobs).

But the county's public sector continued to hemorrhage jobs, which offset the private sector gains. Public sector payrolls shed 700 jobs, including 400 K-12 education positions, resulting in the county's net gain of 1,200 jobs year over year.

Meanwhile, Clark County's unemployment rate for April was revised to 10.9 percent. That's nearly two percentage points higher than the initial estimated rate of 9 percent that was previously reported for that month.

The county's preliminary jobless rate of 9.4 percent in May will likely see a similar upward revision to account for unemployed Clark County residents who previously worked in Oregon.

The county's unemployment rate has slowly inched downward: In May 2011, for example, it was 13.1 percent. Since the onslaught of the Great Recession, Clark County's jobless rate has hovered in double digits, reaching a high of 15.9 percent in March 2010.

Since July 2008, 5,133 Clark County residents have run out of unemployment insurance benefits. That's an increase of 900 over the past two months, according to Bailey, in part because the extended benefits program ended.

The Portland metro area's unemployment rate was 8 percent in May, unchanged from April, according to Amy Vander Vliet, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. The year-ago jobless rate was 9 percent. An estimated 92,600 metro area residents were unemployed and looking for work.

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