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On this Labor Day weekend, Clark County’s workers face many of the same problems as workers across the nation: stagnant wages, a need for more education and training to compete in a fast-changing job market, and a weakening hold on the middle-class lifestyle.
That’s the hard reality as the economy slowly recovers, adding jobs at a rate that doesn’t match the rate of job loss during the slide that began in 2007.
While the fragility of the economy looms large for workers, the emerging wage and job patterns during recovery begs larger questions, said Amy Wharton, interim director of Washington State University Vancouver’s College of Liberal Arts, who has studied employment and wage trends.
“What is going to be the next big chunk of middle-class jobs?” she asks. “Where are people going to go to get jobs to raise a family? Where they can get health insurance and benefits?”
A look into that cloudy future can begin with a snapshot of Clark County’s workforce drawn from a state Employment Security Department wage survey. That survey, based on a rolling three-year average adjusted for inflation, confirms a picture of Clark County as largely a middle-class, middle-income stronghold with an abundance of service and middle-management jobs, and relatively few high-flying professional salaries.
Indeed, four of the county’s top five employment groups based on number of employees, constituting 43 percent of the county’s local workers, are in service, sales and administrative sectors, which offer pay below the countywide median. Only education jobs generally exceed the countywide median salary. Overall, the 124,077 workers with jobs in the county earn a median salary of $36,725 per year, according to the wage survey.
The largest employment group is in office and administrative support, with 20,102 workers who earn a annual median salary of $33,065.
But only 10 workers claim the title of postmaster or mail superintendent, the lowest number of any job category. On average, those 10 people make twice as much as the same number of office workers, at just more than $72,000 per person per year on average.
Job cuts, operational improvements and advances in technology have contributed to increased efficiency in many workplaces. But the resulting increase in worker productivity has not paid off in wage increases. With inflation-adjusted wages stagnant in Washington and across the U.S., there’s not much chance that those in either the biggest or smaller categories — or most in between — will be improving their standard of living any time soon.
Stagnant incomes are a long-term problem, not only for local residents but for workers across the nation, said Scott Bailey, the state Employment Security Department’s regional economist. The growing disconnect between productivity increases and income growth defies economic theory, which suggests that workers over time will be compensated for doing more with less.
Bailey also flags a related worrisome trend: income growth is increasingly concentrated in the highest income brackets.
He attributes both trends to key changes in the business and financial worlds:
• A concentration of retail and other businesses allows big companies to put the squeeze on suppliers, dampening wages across the supply chain.
• The rising power of an increasingly deregulated financial sector encourages short-term profit-taking with little regard to local communities or workers.
• A decline in union membership weakens pressure for wage increases.
• And globalization, which dampens wages in fields where foreign workers can produce the same products at a lower cost.
Clark County’s households have taken a big hit. Median household income in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, was $54,924. Just three years earlier, the household median was $61,176. Clark County household income was $2,747 above the state average in 2007; last year, it was $707 below.
While those issues are subject to much debate, some truths are increasingly evident as researchers chronicle the nation’s slow economic recovery.
• Workers with college or advanced-education degrees fare far better in today’s workforce than those with no post-high school education. A recent study by the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows the unemployment rate for all four-year college graduates is 4.5 percent; for recent graduates, it’s 6.8 percent; but for recent graduates of high school, it’s nearly 24 percent.
• The middle class is shrinking as savings, assets and wages decline. A recent Pew Research Report shows that the number of middle-class households has declined from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent today.
• And some jobs requiring advanced skills are going begging even while the county’s unemployment remains rate stubbornly high at 10.9 percent in June, according to the state Employment Security Department. Another report, by the Brookings Institute, finds that the unemployment rate can be 2 percentage points higher in communities where there aren’t enough workers with post-high school education to meet demand.
When it comes to wages and household incomes, Clark County offers a mixed portrait, Bailey said. Wages are generally lower than the state and national averages. But until reently, the county’s median household income exceeded the state average. One explanation for the seeming incongruity, Bailey said, is that the largely suburban community has fewer households in poverty to pull down the average. Another is that median household income statistics include employment from jobs in the larger Portland area, and wages are generally higher in the Oregon side of the metro region.
Health care professions offer the best pay in Clark County, with five of the 10 highest wage jobs in health care related fields. WSUV’s Wharton and others say they expect medical fields to add jobs as the baby boom generation works its way into senior-citizen status.
But those medical jobs that make the top 10 wage list contain less than one percent of the county’s jobs, and many jobs in the medical field are low-wage direct care and service jobs.
Among the top 20 job categories as measured by wages, the largest group is in management occupations, with 4,549 workers earning a median annual salary of $97,916. Those relatively high salaries speak to the value of advanced education. But some professions requiring advanced degrees offer more opportunity for income growth than others.
A pharmacist can earn a starting annual wage of $98,639, the sixth-highest of any job category for beginning wages. But an experienced pharmacist’s annual salary of $121,999 places it in 23rd place on the experienced-worker salary list.
Lawyers, on the other hand, start in 26th place with a starting annual salary of $68,697, climbing as they gain experience to 11th place, with an average annual salary of $135,093.
Compare that wage growth with the meager rewards at the lower end of the job market, in which experience buys little in income gains.
Cafeteria workers earn an entry-level salary of $18,847 per year, the fifth-lowest of any employment group for starting wages. Cafeteria workers with experience earn just $20,532 annually, the third-lowest in pay in the experienced worker category. Cashiers, a much larger group of workers, fare slightly better, with experience boosting their pay from $18,847 to $24,955 per year.
The Columbia River Economic Development Council, a Vancouver-based nonprofit business recruiter and jobs promoter, will continue its recruitment focus on manufacturing and wholesale jobs. It also will expand its efforts to recruit software and engineering firms, the kind of employers that pay higher wages, said Bonnie Moore, director of business services for both the CREDC and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. The county’s labor pool lacks some of the technical skills that high-tech companies want, she said, adding that the agencies will train workers for those jobs.
Those are the jobs that perhaps will provide the family wages that, for now, seem a fading memory for many county residents.
Columbian staff writer Aaron Corvin contributed to this story.