Government layoffs sour Clark County recovery

Local unemployment expected to be 11 percent

By Aaron Corvin and Cami Joner

Published:

 

Clark County’s private sector made a decent showing in February, adding 1,600 jobs over the past year in a variety of private-sector industries, including health care and manufacturing.

But the hard-hit public sector, including school districts and governments that are among the county’s top employers, continued to shed jobs — 700 in the 12 months through February, to be exact.

As a result, the county netted a total of only 900 jobs, year over year, and was left with a likely unemployment rate of 11 percent, according to a state report released Tuesday.

The gloomy numbers underscore the continuing frustration of Clark County job-seekers, many of whom worry about an erosion of their skills as a sputtering economy keeps them on the sidelines.

Terry Lenhart, 56, understands that feeling well. “You start thinking, ‘Did I imagine that I had all of these skills? Wouldn’t I be working if I really had those skills?’” she said.

But she also knows how it feels to grab hold of one of those hard-to-find bright spots in the local job market. Lenhart, who was laid off in late 2010 by the city of Vancouver after spending 17 years there as an assistant to city planners, found a new job last month as an administrative assistant at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

“I really wanted another job. I wanted to work,” Lenhart said.

Challenges are significant

But wanting to work and having the skills to meet an employer’s needs sometimes aren’t enough. The broader economy also has to be working in your favor, including strong consumer and business spending, and a sturdy housing market. Some economists argue for additional fiscal and monetary stimulus to spur economic demand and to put more people back to work. Others believe long-term, fundamental workforce issues mean many people will need to be retrained to be successful in the new, emerging economy.

And while the state and other metro areas have seen genuine improvement in their labor markets, data show Clark County has yet to gain a strong enough foothold to drive sustained job growth.

As regional economist Scott Bailey showed in an analysis of the county’s job market last year, the larger economy has a long way to go before it gets to normal.

“Given all the challenges in the current economy — the phasing out of fiscal and monetary stimulus, the continued weakness in the housing market, the extended fragility of financial markets, the drag from cutbacks in state and local government spending and perhaps federal spending — the odds of a recovery within even a five-year period are not good,” according to Bailey.

To recover by 2016 and drive down the unemployment rate to 5 percent, Clark County’s job growth would have to average 4 percent a year, or 5,300 jobs annually, Bailey’s analysis shows. The county would have to create roughly 442 jobs per month to recover by 2016.

There are no signs that such rapid growth is on the horizon. And, unlike King County — where Microsoft Corp. and Boeing form twin engines of job growth and where the jobless rate is 7.5 percent — Clark County lacks a major driver locally of additional employment.

Since December 2008, Clark County’s jobless rate has hovered in double digits, reaching a high of 15.9 percent in March 2010. Since the end of 2008, that rate has dipped to a single digit just once — 9.3 percent in December 2011, according to state data.

In his “Southwest Washington Labor Market News” report Tuesday, Bailey said there are several key questions for Clark County’s labor market this year, such as: “Will government layoffs come to an end this year?”

He raises other questions including:

• After perking up in the first half of last year, construction has been slipping downward since August. “Will we finally see a bottom?”

• Manufacturing (up 400 jobs since February 2011) and wholesale trade (up 300 jobs since February 2011) have helped grow local jobs. “Will hiring continue to rise in these two industries?”

• Retail sales have been stagnant, and leisure and hospitality sales haven’t fared much better. “Will sales start to pick up, and generate new retail, lodging and food service jobs?”

Initial jobless claims up

Clark County’s January preliminary unemployment rate of 9 percent was revised upward to 11.2 percent, according to Bailey. February’s preliminary jobless rate was 8.8 percent, but that will be revised to roughly 11 percent in March.

Meanwhile, Clark County job-seekers who are in the Washington state insurance system filed 2,132 initial claims for unemployment insurance in February. That’s actually higher than in February 2011, when 2,073 initial claims were filed.

The number of claims filed over the year have “shown no improvement,” Bailey wrote in his report, and “were still a third higher than what might be considered healthy.”

He went on: “This means that there has continued to be an abnormally high number of job losses generated in the local economy.”

Washington state has fared better. Employers across the state added 54,900 jobs in the past 12 months, lowering the unemployment rate to an estimated 8.2 percent. In Oregon, the jobless rate stayed at 8.8 percent in February, Bailey said.

But the Portland area also struggled in February, shedding 600 jobs and posting an 8.1 percent unemployment rate.

‘The perfect fit’

To be sure, positive trends can be found in Clark County, including in the health care sector, which added 300 jobs in the 12 months ending in February.

That positive trend — coupled with Lenhart’s determination to find a job — swept her to PeaceHealth, where she started in February after more than a year of unemployment.

She had searched high and low, sending out between 12 and 15 applications per week.

Lenhart, who is single, said she didn’t have much time to prepare for the shock of losing her job when the city of Vancouver cut its budget. The search was a blow to her self-esteem, said Lenhart, who sensed a bit of age discrimination while she hunted for work.

A career counselor warned her that some potential employers might have those perceptions. “I laughed,” Lenhart said. “I mean, I can type 80 words per minute.”

Now that she’s back in the workforce, Lenhart has pushed her frustration aside, thrilled to finally be settling into her job at PeaceHealth.

“I love it,” Lenhart said. “Something in my heart told me they weren’t just looking for the person with the right skills. They were looking for the perfect fit.”

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

Cami Joner:360-735-4532, www.facebook.com/camijoner