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December county jobless rate at 13.1 percent

It slightly higher than the month before

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: January 20, 2011, 12:00am

Clark County’s jobless rate continued its monthslong pattern of hovering in the 12 percent to 14 percent range, coming in at 13.1 percent in December as private-sector industries cut jobs and as holiday hiring was lower than what is normally expected, the Employment Security Department reported Wednesday.

Construction lost 300 jobs, while manufacturing saw no change compared with November. Government and primary and secondary schools added 300 jobs.

The county’s jobless rate was 12.9 percent in November — though it had been earlier reported at 13.1 percent before the state revised its figures. It was 13.7 percent in December 2009.

Clark County total December employment of 126,200 was down 1,200 jobs from the same month a year ago. The county has lost 9,700 jobs since the economic recession began in 2007. Though economists say the recession officially ended in June 2009, that pronouncement has meant little for Clark County. Its jobless rate is tied with Grays Harbor County’s as the fourth-highest in Washington state.

Wednesday’s report marked the end of a dismal year for Clark County’s labor market.

‘We continue to leak jobs’

While 2009 “was a disaster, 2010 in comparison was a hangnail,” said Scott Bailey, Southwest Washington regional economist for the Employment Security Department. “But it was not an improvement. We continue to leak jobs. Hopefully, we’ll see a turnaround this year.”

Although government and public schools, which face major budget challenges, reported adding 300 Clark County jobs in December, Bailey said the increase was “just a monthly blip at this point” and should not be taken as evidence of sustained growth in that part of the local economy. While K-12 education added 200 jobs from November to December, total employment in that sector was the same as it was in December 2009: 12,100. And local government employment was down 100 jobs from a year ago, to 17,600 last month.

Fewer jobs or no change

In Clark County, most industry sectors either lost jobs or saw no change in December, according to Bailey:

• Retailers cut 100 positions over the month, reflecting weak holiday hiring. The sector added 400 jobs from September to December. Most of those jobs were generated by the opening of the new Costco in east Vancouver.

• Transportation shed 200 jobs, in part because of the suspension of barge traffic on the Columbia River while locks are repaired.

Clark County residents filed 3,501 first-time applications for unemployment benefits in December, up 42 percent from November, Bailey said. To date, 2,350 county residents have exhausted all their available jobless benefits.

To the north, Cowlitz County’s jobless rate was 11.9 percent in December. Skamania County’s was 13 percent; Wahkiakum County’s, 13.8 percent. King County, home to Seattle, reported a jobless rate of 8.4 percent. Ferry County had the state’s highest unemployment rate in December: 13.9 percent.

Washington’s jobless rate essentially was unchanged at 9.3 percent in December, up from 9.2 percent in November. For all of 2010, Washington added 11,800 private-sector jobs. Factoring in a substantial loss of government jobs, the state gained a net of about 8,000 jobs during the past 12 months.

By contrast, Oregon’s jobless rate has been stuck between 10.5 percent and 10.7 percent for the most recent 14 months, according to the state’s Employment Department. In December, that state’s jobless rate was 10.6 percent; in November, it was 10.5 percent.

National economy

In his labor market report, Bailey also said the national economy is growing: Gross domestic product, which measures the value of all goods and services in the U.S., rose by 2.6 percent in the third quarter of 2010, “and is expected to grow even faster this year,” he wrote.

As to whether that bodes well for Clark County, Bailey said that business growth “doesn’t necessarily mean a recovery in employment.” He doesn’t know why unemployment remains high in some metro areas even as business productivity has increased. Companies may be investing in more efficient equipment rather than taking on more workers, Bailey said. Some companies are also shrinking their work forces and asking existing workers to do more.

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Housing, meanwhile, remains a significant drag on the nation’s economy. “While housing construction is rising slightly, the housing market is still a mess, and average prices are expected to fall in 2011 by 5 to 10 percent,” according to Bailey. By contrast, the apartment market is tightening as more people move from homes to rentals. As a result, apartment vacancy rates are falling while rents are edging upward, Bailey wrote in his report, “with apartment construction expected to recover in 2013.”

Bailey said that in some metro areas “there looks to be an uptick in apartment construction” next year, and that national trend could take root in Clark County. “That’s a possibility,” he said.

Looking ahead, rising commodity prices could slow down the nation’s lackluster economy, Bailey wrote. “The price of oil has been inexorably rising, and is now up to $90 a barrel. The higher it goes, the greater the impact on the economy.”

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter