Clark County economy gets lift from jobs gain

Construction, manufacturing help drive increase

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Bolstered by muscular showings in construction, manufacturing, and professional and business services, Clark County's economy brightened in July with an annual gain of 3,200 jobs, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

Construction and manufacturing chipped in a combined 1,200 jobs over the year, while professional and business services — which encompass management, administrative support and technical positions — generated 1,100 new hires.

Quality, not just quantity, also was evident in the employment numbers reported in the analysis by Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department. With gains in private sectors such as construction, manufacturing, corporate offices and business services, Bailey said Tuesday, "… we've definitely seen growth in some of the higher-wage industries."

But July's numbers also revealed a sobering fact: Clark County is still digging its way out of a deep hole gouged by the 2008 financial collapse of the U.S. economy. Indeed, during the recession years — from February 2008 to February 2010 — the county hemorrhaged 10,200 jobs. Since then, it has recovered 7,700 jobs, or about 75 percent of what was lost. The county, Bailey said, still has "a long ways to go."

Nevertheless, it's picking up the pace.

The year-over-year employment growth of 3,200 jobs through July included an increase of 200 jobs, on a seasonally-adjusted basis, from June to July. It also reflected an upward revision, based on tax returns from employers for the first quarter of 2013, that bumped up payrolls by 400 jobs.

The net increase in hiring by employers translates to an annualized growth rate of 2.5 percent. In better times, Clark County's annual growth rate typically clocks in at 2.5 percent to 3 percent. "It's been slowly accelerating," Bailey said.

By contrast, the Portland metro area posted an annual employment growth rate of 2.7 percent in July, while Washington and Oregon experienced growth rates of 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively.

"We're pretty much matching our peers," Bailey said.

Clark County's preliminary unemployment rate in July -- 8.6 percent -- is likely to be revised upward to above 9 percent. The revision will take into account those unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon.

A similar modification drove up June's initial jobless rate of 8.6 percent to 9.9 percent.

In July 2012, the county's unemployment rate was 10.8 percent.

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

Although the county's economy continues to improve, not everyone who wants full-time work is finding an open door. The underemployment rate is a broader measure of labor market inertia that includes involuntary part-time workers (those who want full-time work but can't find it) and those who've given up looking for work but who still want a job.

The U.S. underemployment rate was 14 percent in July, according to Bailey's report. In July 2012, it was 14.9 percent.

In previous interviews, Bailey has said that because Clark County's jobless rate has been higher than the nation's, the county's underemployment rate is in at least the high teens and may be as high as 20 percent.

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