Clark County adds 1,300 jobs over 12 months

Area continues to struggle to find its economic footing

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Employers in Clark County added a net 1,300 jobs in the 12 months through January, the state Employment Security Department reported Tuesday.

In the private sector, employers added 1,800 jobs between January 2011 and 2012. Public sector employers, however, cut 500 jobs -- a continuing drag on the local economy that left a net gain of 1,300 jobs year over year.

The job numbers, while showing some life in the labor market, also pointed to the county’s ongoing struggle to find its economic footing more than four years after the economic downturn began.

“Clark County’s employment trend of the past year has been two steps forward, one back, but overall a modestly positive growth rate of 1 percent over the year,” Scott Bailey, regional labor economist, wrote in his “Southwest Washington Labor Market News” report.

The county’s preliminary unemployment rate in January was 9 percent -- a nearly five percentage point drop from January 2011’s jobless rate of 13.9 percent.

If that seems like an outlandishly large drop, it is.

That’s because a new computer glitch that occurred last month has left claims for jobless benefits -- an important piece of data officials use to help calculate unemployment rates -- unreliable, according to Bailey.

The glitch further clouds the alreadyexisting issue of delayed reporting of Clark County’s final estimated jobless rate each month to account for residents collecting unemployment insurance in Oregon.

“As a result, Clark County’s preliminary in January (9 percent) was well below the year-ago rate (13.9 percent in January 2011), and several thousand unemployed (residents) seemingly disappeared from the county,” Bailey wrote.

The problem has apparently affected counties with high numbers of interstate unemployment insurance claims: Clark, where a portion of its residents work in Oregon, and Klickitat, Skamania, Asotin and Spokane counties.

The hope is to have the problem fixed soon, Bailey wrote. “In the meantime, federal rules require that we plow ahead with the data we have in hand.”

In his report, Bailey reminded readers that Clark County’s initial jobless rates have later been adjusted upward by roughly two percentage points to account for unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon.

“There is simply no way that the unemployment rate has dropped by five points in the last year,” according to Bailey. “Readers are advised to await further word and hopefully a correction in the glitch that is causing the error.”

The most recent -- and reliable -- estimate of Clark County’s jobless rate was in November, when the rate rose to 11 percent, from a preliminary rate of 8.8 percent, after Oregon numbers were added.

While the county’s January unemployment figure needs repair, there’s nothing wrong with the sector-by-sector job numbers, which are based on different data, including employers’ tax returns.

Clark County’s net gain of 1,300 jobs was concentrated in manufacturing, which added 500 jobs, and education and health services, which also increased

payrolls by 500 jobs.

Bailey described the sector-by-sector labor market outlook as “lukewarm,” with government on a downward trend and with the private sector seeing tepid growth.

“Manufacturing, wholesale trade and professional services have all been trending upward at 3 to 4 percent growth for two years,” according to Bailey. “The good news is, these industries all pay above average.”

Conversely, he wrote, “other industries are either flat (for example, retail trade), erratic with no trend (for example, transportation services), or increasing somewhat slowly (such as health care, which is growing at 2 percent).”

Meanwhile, Portland metro area employment was revised upward for 2011, Bailey wrote, and growth over the year now stands at 1.5 percent. However, take Portland out of the Oregon total, and the rest of the state has actually lost workers over the past 12 months, according to Bailey.

In Washington state, the economic news has been positive. Statewide employment estimates for the last half of 2011 were revised sharply upwards, Bailey wrote, and growth “over the past 12 months was a strong 62,500 jobs, a growth rate of 2.2 percent.”

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