Economic expansion in Clark County looks hot

7,000 jobs were added over the year ending in November

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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Clark County’s economy expanded in November “at a blistering pace,” the region’s labor economist reported Tuesday, adding 7,000 jobs over the year and posting an annualized growth rate of 4.9 percent.

Of all the possible drivers of the county’s and the nation’s robust employment growth, business and consumer spending are doing the heavy lifting, said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department. “If you think about what is there to lift us out of a funk, there’s household spending, business spending and government spending, and there’s exports,” Bailey said. “We’re still importing more than we’re exporting, and the government has been cutting back on spending. What’s left are businesses and households.”

And households, having lowered their debt levels, are spending on goods and services, Bailey added.

Theoretically, strong job growth should put upward pressure on wages as employers compete for workers in a tightening labor market. However, the median hourly wage in Clark County (half of all jobs in the county paid more; half paid less) — which was $20.05 in 2013, adjusted for inflation — has essentially remained flat, increasing by about 1 percent since 2002.

Bailey said Tuesday the county still has “a ways to go before we’re going to see across-the-board wage increases like we did in the late ’90s.” He added, “I think we still have too much slack in the labor market for that.”

Nevertheless, across-the-board employment growth in Clark County made for yet “another positive report” for the region’s labor market, according to Bailey’s monthly analysis released Tuesday.

The county’s annualized growth rate of 4.9 percent more than doubled that of the nation’s (2 percent), easily topped those of Washington and Oregon (2.7 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively) and surpassed that of the Portland metro area (2.6 percent).

Every job sector showed net employment growth in the 12 months ending in November. “The big four,” as Bailey wrote in his analysis, “were still cranking out the jobs:” trade, transportation and utilities (up 1,800 jobs), professional and business services (up 1,000 positions), construction (up 700 jobs), and education and health services (up 1,200 jobs).

The year-over-year payroll growth included a bump up of 400 jobs from October to November.

Meanwhile, Clark County’s preliminary unemployment rate in November clocked in at 7.3 percent. That’s down from 8.3 percent unemployment in November 2013. However, November’s initial jobless rate of 7.3 percent “may end up getting revised above 8 percent,” according to Bailey.

The revision would take into account those unemployed county residents who previously worked in Oregon. The county’s preliminary unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in October was revised upward to 7.5 percent. Initial claims for unemployment insurance “plunged in November to their lowest seasonally-adjusted rate” since January 1998, according to Bailey.

By another measure of labor market inertia — the underemployment rate, which includes involuntary part-time workers and those who’ve given up looking for work but who still want a job — the labor market still shows sluggishness.

The U.S. underemployment rate in November was 11.4 percent — the lowest since 2008. In Clark County, Bailey said, the underemployment rate is “probably a little bit higher” than the nation’s.