Clark County well short of full employment

Job-loss trends harsher than statewide averages

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge
photoClick to enlarge
photoScott Bailey

Labor Day is the nation's official celebration of workers. In Clark County in 2013, it marks a time for many families to reflect on modest financial recoveries from recent hard times, and for others to continue adjusting to smaller paychecks and a scarcity of jobs.

Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Employment Security Department, recently examined current job and wage patterns and compared them to the same (inflation-adjusted) numbers from 2007, before the Great Recession. Bailey found some predictable results, as well as some little-known trends.

On the unsurprising side: Even with some recovery, the county has fewer jobs now than it did in 2007. That's troubling enough. But it's made worse by the fact that Clark County's population has grown by 4.4 percent since 2007, and many frustrated job-seekers have left the work force. The result: a large increase in the number of jobs needed for the county to reach its ideal of full employment.

The current unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. Using the generally accepted assumption that 4.5 percent unemployment could be considered full employment due to job churn, Bailey concluded that the county would need 9,600 jobs for full employment. In 2007, when unemployment was 5.6 percent, the county would have needed just 1,900 more jobs to fill that gap, Bailey concluded.

On the wage front, many people can attest from personal experience that wages are — at best — holding steady. Bailey's numbers bear that out: The median wage in Clark County has remained at about $20 an hour since 2002.

That doesn't mean that few people have gotten

raises in the past decade. That median wage is stuck in place in part, Bailey said, because lower-wage jobs are replacing a shrinking number of middle-wage jobs. The shift drags down the average salary calculation.

Clark County's moderate-wage and middle-income jobs — paying from $12 to $24 per hour — have declined by over 7 percent between 2007 and 2012. And the number of solidly middle-class jobs paying $24 to $30 per hour have declined by 5.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of jobs that pay less than $12 an hour dropped by a mere 1 percent from 2007 to 2012. And Clark County saw a scant 0.4-percent increase in the highest pay category, jobs paying $30 an hour or more.

A worrisome subtext is that Clark County's job-loss trends, and its hollowing out of middle-income jobs relative to lower wage jobs, are more severe than the statewide average. On a percentage basis, the state lost fewer jobs than Clark County between 2007 and 2012, and statewide there was a five percent increase in jobs paying $30 an hour or more.

But looking at salary trends through a different prism produces more encouraging results. Bailey's comparison of employment by wage categories between 2011 and 2012 found that Clark County's patterns closely tracked the state average in most categories. An exception: Clark County saw a greater increase in $24 to $30 per hour jobs than the statewide average, and smaller growth than the state average in the $16 to $24 per hour job category.

In examining the trends, Bailey said he's most concerned about the stagnant wages and the challenges facing the long-term unemployed, including those who have dropped out of the workforce.

Younger workers new to the labor force and older workers who lost jobs during the downturn are among the hardest hit by the economic restructuring brought on by the recession, he said.

The economy isn't producing nearly enough jobs for those who want to work, Bailey said, and public policy officials have not taken steps to stimulate job growth.

"This is a policy choice by decision-makers that they're not going to pay attention to full employment," he said.

"When World War II was getting under way nobody asked about money, because it was a priority. We don't seem to have this as a priority."