UPDATE: Clark County’s labor market strengthens

Payrolls, while still far from booming, show solid growth

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



Bolstered by a better-than-expected fourth quarter in 2011 and nearly across-the-board job gains last month, Clark County’s economy added 1,800 jobs in the 12 months through April, the region’s economist reported Tuesday.

Manufacturing, wholesale trade, health care and retail led the way in the county’s sudden surge in job growth as its unemployment rate inched downward to a preliminary 9 percent.

“At last some good news,” wrote Scott Bailey, in his “Southwest Washington Labor Market News” report. Clark County’s nonfarm employment during the October-to-December period of 2011 “was revised upward by over 1,000 jobs,” according to Bailey. “Employment in a number of industries came in higher than initially estimated from a sample of employers.

“And that’s not all,” Bailey went on. The county added 900 jobs in April, “the best month in the past year.”

While the local job market still suffers from weak spots, the numbers released Tuesday show Clark County finally breaking the pattern of weak job growth formed in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. That’s not to say, however, that the county has stepped outside the shadow of its economic problems.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Bailey said the nation’s slow recovery has finally made its way to Clark County.

“Now we’re starting to feel what a lot of other areas are feeling,” he said. The uptick is particularly evident with manufacturing, which has led the U.S. economic recovery, and which has fattened payrolls by 600 jobs in Clark County over the past year.

But the county still lags behind overall recoveries in Washington state and the U.S. And while the county now mirrors the national economy’s “couple months hot, couple months cold” trend, Bailey said, “that turning-the-corner, hitting-all-cylinders moment hasn’t happened.”

Jobless rate lowers

The county’s preliminary April unemployment rate of 9 percent is expected to be revised upward to roughly 11 percent to account for unemployed Clark County residents who previously worked in Oregon.

The county’s jobless rate in March was similarly revised from 9.3 percent to 11.5 percent. The county’s unemployment rate has slowly inched downward: In April 2011, for example, it was 13.1 percent.

Bailey said Clark County’s slowly decreasing unemployment rate is the result of a combination of two factors: The labor force has shrunk as some people have given up looking for work, he said, “but employment is higher” as others have found jobs.

The Portland-Vancouver metro area’s unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in April, according to Amy VanderVliet, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. The March rate was 8 percent, and the year-ago rate was 9.2 percent.

Oregon’s unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in April. Washington’s was 8.1 percent. In the U.S., it was also 8.1 percent.

The positive news for Clark County’s labor market comes as broader problems loom. The European sovereign debt crisis continues to roil markets. And JPMorgan Chase Bank’s multibillion-dollar trading loss has renewed calls for tougher regulatory oversight of Wall Street banks that were at the epicenter of the economic crash.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Washington economy — where Clark County harbors the bulk of the population — still shows weak spots. “The broader context, however, was still pretty grim,” Bailey wrote in his report, with “high unemployment, low labor force participation rates (from workers dropping out of the labor force), and a lot of unemployed who are in the process of losing their access” to jobless benefits.

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. The county’s jobless rate has dipped to a single digit just once since the end of 2008 — 9.3 percent in December 2011, according to state data.

Jobless claims still high

In the past 12 months, however, what had been a few bright spots in Clark County’s labor market transformed into an actual shiny picture in April.

In the county’s private sector, employers added 2,400 jobs between April 2011 and 2012.

Manufacturing was up 600 jobs; trade, transportation and utilities increased payrolls by 500 jobs; the health care sector increased by 300 jobs; and professional and business services employers hired 300 positions.

But the county’s public sector continued to hemorrhage jobs, which offset the private-sector gains. Public sector payrolls shed 600 jobs, resulting in the county’s net gain of 1,800 jobs year over year.

Of the 600 government jobs lost in the past 12 months, K-12 schools got hit hardest, jettisoning 500 positions.

Meanwhile, claims for unemployment insurance remained high.

Clark County residents in the Washington state unemployment system filed 2,061 initial jobless insurance claims in April — “still well above the 1,600 to 1,700 level from 2005-2006,” according to Bailey.

And jobless insurance claims made during the first six months of unemployment were 4,370, which “was much higher than the 2,600 average from 2006,” Bailey wrote in his report.

Since July 2008, 4,857 Clark County residents have run out of all of their unemployment insurance.

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

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