New year should match, maybe beat, 2013 in job growth

Expect construction to continue to rise from a deep hole



photoScott Bailey

My economic forecast for Clark County, for the second year in a row, was too pessimistic for 2013. I thought jobs would grow at a rate of 1.5 to 2.0 percent. Instead, we’re right around 2.7 percent.

I expected 2,000 to 2,600 jobs, but in October we were up to 3,900 new jobs.

Nationally, the consensus seems to be that gross domestic product will grow at a faster rate in 2014, as housing continues to improve and the impacts of austerity lessen with the new budget deal. The official state forecast, even while projecting faster growth, is very cautious.

How that faster growth would translate into job growth is open to question. The old rules of thumb don’t seem to work anymore. Have employers tapped out most of the available efficiency improvements? Will we cross a threshold where suddenly hiring accelerates? Or is the new normal a continued stagnation in the labor market?

In Clark County, I expect 2014 will be as good or even better in terms of job growth. Construction, which was up 9 percent in 2013 (coming back from a deep hole), should continue to expand.

Manufacturing also will continue to add jobs. Retail sales are improving, which should mean more jobs in that sector. Fisher Investment’s new building is scheduled to open in late spring, which should mean more high-wage jobs in the financial sector, with a multiplier effect. Health care jobs, down slightly in 2013, remain a source of concern. Finally, it appears that government employment has hit bottom and may be in the plus column in 2014.

While faster job growth would be welcome, we will still have a lot of families struggling to make ends meet. There will still be high unemployment in terms of the official rate as well as the number of people who have dropped out of the labor force. It appears that Congress will cut extended unemployment benefits, and it has already reduced food stamps. And the quality of jobs — wages and benefits — in many cases will remain suspect.

Bailey is the Washington Employment Security Department’s Southwest Washington regional economist.