Jobs gain continues Clark County's slow recovery

Steady improvement evident in battered local labor market

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Clark County's slowly recovering economy maintained that pace in March, a state Employment Security Department report showed Tuesday, by eking out 100 new jobs in a month that typically sees a decline in payrolls.

Steady, long-term improvement in the county's battered labor market also was evident, according to the analysis by Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department. In the 12 months through March, Clark County employment increased by 2,000 jobs, an annualized growth rate of 1.6 percent.

Sectors leading the gains included professional and business services (up 800 jobs), trade, transportation and utilities (up 400 jobs), and government (up 400 jobs).

However, March's annualized growth rate of 1.6 percent was lower than the 2 percent the county posted in the 12 months ending in February. In better times, the county's annual growth rate typically clocks in at 2.5 percent to 3 percent.

But don't fling open the doors to gloom just yet. There's some hope on the horizon.

Clark County's job-growth rate will be revised upward in May after preliminary estimates for the fourth quarter of 2012 are modified, according to Bailey's "Southwest Washington Labor Market News" report.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Bailey said he thinks the county's annual rate of employment growth will come in at "a little above 2 percent" next month after revisions are made.

Payrolls in Clark County have increased over time, Bailey said, with annualized growth hovering at 1 percent at one point, bumping up to 1.5 percent, and then finding its way to 2 percent. "There's been some acceleration," he said, "and now it looks like we'll be getting over 2 percent. That's just pretty good news."

Initial jobless claims down

The county's preliminary unemployment rate in March — 8.5 percent — will likely be revised upward to just above 10 percent to account for unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon, according to Bailey. A similar revision drove up February's initial jobless rate of 9.6 percent to 11.2 percent.

Since the 2008 financial crisis hit, Clark County's unemployment rate reached its highest level in March 2010: 15.9 percent.

Since then, the jobless rate has fallen, albeit in an agonizingly slow fashion.

There were other bright spots in Bailey's report. First-time jobless claims filed by Clark County residents with the state's unemployment insurance system plummeted by 26 percent — from 2,112 in March 2012 to 1,569 in March 2013. That's the lowest level since 2006.

While the labor market slowly heals, local consumer spending sputtered some late last year, Bailey said. Taxable retail sales, "which had a nice increase in the third quarter of 2012," he wrote, "retrenched a bit in the fourth quarter."

What's more, sales at retailers, including Target and Wal-Mart — which fell 10 percent early in the economic crash — "haven't moved an inch in five years," except to keep up with inflation, which is, according to Bailey, "not much."

However, consumers seem to be embracing eating out and traveling. While spending at retail outlets remains 13 percent below the pre-recession peak, Bailey wrote, "both restaurants and hotels/motels continued to see increased sales and have now exceeded their previous highs."

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