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April 17, 2021

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Weighing how salaries stack up in the Vancouver-Portland area

Pay is increasing for many occupations, as competition for particular workers grows more intense

By , Columbian staff writer
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A strong economy is starting to put more dollars in the hands of local workers, but some occupations are paying better than others.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently released wage data showing jobs in technology, finance and health care have surged in recent years in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area, while many blue-collar jobs are laboring against low pay.

Art directors, property managers and physicians and surgeons all saw the highest gains in median wage from May 2016 to May 2017, according to The Columbian’s analysis of the report. They’re earning between $4 and $6.50 more per hour than they were the previous year.

Meanwhile, installers of heating, air conditioning and refrigeration; mail carriers and cement masons lost as much as $3.46 per hour, the analysis showed. Only jobs with 1,000 or more workers were included.

Since 2012, the biggest wage increases showed up for personal finance advisers and art directors. Electronics engineers who design circuits and components for telecommunications and aerospace industries — specifically, not computer hardware — saw the biggest drop in pay.

There are many reasons why some occupations have growing paychecks, said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department. A common thread among the thriving jobs, he said, are that they are in sectors with more competition for workers.

“They have a national market,” he said, noting that software developers can go anywhere on the West Coast or East Coast and find jobs if they decide they are unhappy. “And because (those firms are more profitable), there’s more leeway to pay more.”

Broadly speaking, May 2016 to May 2017 saw the biggest gains for technology workers and jobs in arts, media and entertainment.

Computer and mathematics jobs — which include web developers and mathematicians — saw median wages rise $2.61 per hour. Arts, design, entertainment and media jobs, which encompass everything from radio announcers to dancers to professional athletes, saw median wages rise $1.71 per hour.

All occupations in the metro area make about 50 cents more per hour than they did in 2016 and about $3 more than they did in 2012, according to the data. That amounts to a median hourly wage of $20.41 and annual wage of $42,460.

Those figures also outpace the typical U.S. worker, who makes $18.12 per hour or $37,939 per year.

Health care practitioners especially earn more in the Vancouver-Portland area than elsewhere. Those jobs — everything from chiropractors to physicians to MRI technologists — earn almost one-third more money than the U.S. median, the data showed.

Many jobs have not yet seen wages rise as had been expected. Many labor-type jobs reported wages either plateaued or dropped from the year before. The same was true for many food service and retail jobs that make up much of the regional economy.

Bailey cautioned that the data does not tell the whole story. The data is collected via survey, he said, so there could be sampling errors.

“It’s businesses trying to classify their workers,” he said. “It’s their (human resources) departments, in fact — if they have an HR department.”

Some classifications could be obsolete, too. Because the economy once heavily relied on manual labor, many job descriptions are narrower than others, such as a plastic materials grinder versus a software engineer.

And even if some jobs are not seeing wages rise as fast, those skills could still be in high demand, said Bailey, who also teaches economics at Clark College.

“Welders might not be in demand, per se, but welding skills are,” he said. “Employers want to hire people with those skills but maybe it’s not the primary thing they do.”

Some sectors that aren’t seeing wages rise as fast could also be grappling with higher expenses. Paul Dennis, president of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, said construction costs rise almost 1 percent per year as steel and wood materials get more expensive.

“When you compound it, it’s pretty significant,” he said.

But, as head of an organization whose job it is to help retain and recruit businesses in Camas and Washougal, he said he expects wages to go up because many firms are trying to outbid each other.

“Trying to find qualified individuals is becoming a challenge,” he said. Companies are paying for new amenities, too, like rock-climbing walls, pingpong tables and food and beverage service.

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