Clark County economy expands, but it still has a 'long ways to go'

Employment gained 2,500 jobs in 12 months through April

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Clark County's economy continued to expand in April at a healthy annualized rate of roughly 2 percent, a state Employment Security Department report showed Tuesday, with payrolls fattening in several sectors, including construction, manufacturing, and leisure and hospitality.

In fact, the sources of new employment in the county "have been quite diverse, with most industries on the upswing," according to the analysis by Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department. "The exceptions include finance services, which has had a small decline, and health care and social assistance, which has shed jobs since the beginning of the year," he wrote.

In the 12 months through April, Clark County employment increased by 2,500 jobs. That year-over-year employment growth included an increase of 500 jobs, on a seasonally-adjusted basis, from March to April.

Sectors leading the year-over-year gains included leisure and hospitality (up 800 jobs), construction (up 600 jobs), manufacturing (up 500 jobs), and professional and business services (up 400 jobs).

In a phone interview Tuesday, Bailey said he's "more optimistic" now, "but we're still in a deep hole." Indeed, during the recession years -- from February 2008 to February 2010 — Clark County hemorrhaged 10,200 jobs. Since then, it has recovered 6,500 jobs, or about 64 percent of what was lost.

"We still have a long ways to go," Bailey said.

Jobless problem

April's 2 percent annualized growth rate was higher than the 1.6 percent Clark County posted in the 12 months ending in March. In better times, the county's annual growth rate typically clocks in at 2.5 percent to 3 percent.

The county's preliminary unemployment rate in April -- 7.8 percent -- "will likely end up in the low 9s when it is revisited next month," according to Bailey. The revision will take into account those unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon. A similar revision drove up March's initial jobless rate of 8.5 percent to 10.1 percent.

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

Labor market results for Clark County arrive as the state and nation's economies remain on the mend.

Washington state's economy "has slowly been accelerating with job growth now above 2 percent," Bailey wrote in his Southwest Washington Labor Market News analysis. "The labor force has started to expand, and unemployment has been dropping for positive reasons (job growth) instead of negative ones (people dropping out of the labor force)." The state's unemployment rate was 7 percent in April.

By contrast, Oregon's employment growth "continues to be slower -- around 1.7 percent, closer to the national average," Bailey wrote, "and its unemployment remained a point higher (8 percent) in April."

Meanwhile, the nation's recovery is partly tied to the housing market, which has become "a tailwind for the recovery and is supporting consumer spending more broadly," John Fernald, senior research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, wrote this month. Although home prices are well below their pre-recession peak, they're "up sharply over the past year," according to Fernald. And the price increases "have improved household balance sheets and pulled some homeowners above water on their mortgages."

Not everything is well, though, as the nation's underemployment rate illustrates.

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 13.9 percent in April, according to Bailey's report. In April 2012, it was 14.5 percent.

Because Clark County's unemployment rate has been higher than the nation's, Bailey said, the county's underemployment rate is "undoubtedly worse" than in the overall U.S.

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