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Jobs Watch: The phantom exodus

The Oregonian took the unusual step this morning of running a front-page business story about an unnamed executive, CEO of “a successful technology company southwest of Portland employing hundreds and boasting a bright future.”

Was he unnamed because he is participating in the witness protection program?

Hardly. He’s thinking of skipping town.

Jobs Watch: Lessons from New Zealand

Like Oregon, New Zealand has about 4 million residents, gorgeous beaches and a large and (let’s face it) obnoxious neighbor intent on dominating the regional economy. If you think Oregonians have a bias against California, try talking to a Kiwi about Australia.

Unlike Oregon, New Zealand has a functioning health care system, a low unemployment rate and no sprawl. The Kiwis didn’t avoid recession, but they did avoid getting creamed by it. Unemployment has spiked to 7.3%, the highest rate there since 1999, but nowhere near the double-digit woes we’ve been wrestling with in Oregon.

I’m no expert on New Zealand, but I liked what I saw during my recent travels there. A lot. Here are a few lessons I’m bringing back to Oregon, for what it’s worth.

Jobs Watch: Indie Hops grows investment

This just in from Oregon’s ever-growing beer biz: Portland-based startup Indie Hops will donate $1 million to Oregon State University to launch a new breeding program for aroma hops grown in the Willamette Valley. Add that donation to a second million-dollar Indie Hops investment to develop the first hop pellet mill in the Valley along with cold storage and distribution facilities, and you’ve got a new company that could give craft brewers the stability — and respect — that they deserve.

It is fitting that the only U.S. hop merchant dedicated entirely to aroma hops for craft breweries is based in Oregon. Oregonians have been growing first-rate hops and brewing excellent beer since statehood, but for reasons involving the corporate dominance of the Anheuser-Busch InBevs of the world, hops and beer have remained surprisingly disconnected here. Hops are grown in the Valley but processed in Yakima, Wash., where they are sold as commodities, with unpredictable and occasionally maddening price swings. The 18-month-old Indie Hops aims to improve on that inefficient system by purchasing quality hops from Valley farmers, processing them into pellets at a newly completed mill between Hubbard and Mount Angel, and selling them to brewers all over the West Coast. The mill will employ just a few people to start, but if the new local supply catches on there is huge potential for growth.

Indie Hops’ co-founders are Roger Worthington and Jim Solberg, high school football buddies from Corvallis who decided to take the start-up plunge over the course of an evening sampling the wares at the Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland. Worthington was a successful asbestos litigation attorney who was looking for a worthwhile and fun investment. Solberg was a 16-year Nike veteran who quit his job to sail the Pacific Coast in a craft he built himself and help out with a variety of start-ups including Nutcase Helmets and Hammersurf.

Jobs Watch: Coming soon, animation jobs

Almost exactly one year ago, Laika’s first feature film, Coraline, made its world-wide debut in downtown Portland. Now comes the news that this dark but endearing work of stop-action animation has been nominated for an Academy Award, launching a small, independent Oregon studio with a 36-year-old CEO into the big-leagues with Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.

This is excellent news for Oregon’s film industry and a validation for the father-son tandem of Laika chairman Phil Knight and CEO Travis Knight. They took bold risks on Coraline, financially and artistically, and their risks are being rewarded. The film has already grossed more than $120 million (twice what it cost to make), and the publicity and gravitas of an Oscar nomination will boost sales as Coraline hits theaters in animation-crazy Japan and tackles the DVD and paid-television markets domestically.

“Five years ago when we were trying to find a partner for Coraline, nobody had heard of us,” CEO Travis Knight told me yesterday afternoon. “Obviously that changes with this nomination. This will make things easier for the business. But it also increases pressure on us creatively. We’ve set the bar high for what we’re capable of doing and we’ve got to live up to that now.”

Jobs Watch: Here's to green shoots

Maybe it’s just the crazy El Nino weather patterns, but I swear I’ve been noticing some green shoots popping up through the mud in Oregon.

A year ago at this time I was researching a story about Oregon’s underground economy, and the conclusions I was drawing were downright bleak. The job market wasn’t just down, it was dead. I remember tracking Craigslist Portland for a week and estimating that scams and under-the-table services outnumbered legitimate jobs by about 10 to 1.

That's no longer the case. The ratio is still bad, Craigslist being Craigslist, but job postings have improved from about 200 per day to about 250 per day. And far fewer of them strike me as scams. Metal fabrication operator, therapist and automotive title clerk are the top three entries I see as I browse through right now. These are real jobs with real businesses that are hiring.

Jobs Watch: Burn wood not coal

Portland General Electric’s proposal to phase out Oregon’s sole coal-burning power plant 20 years ahead of schedule means the state will soon be losing its largest source of pollution from greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. It also means we will lose a reliable workhorse that has helped keep electricity rates relatively low in Oregon. Replacing the Boardman coal plant will not be easy.

The seemingly obvious solution for making up for that lost power would be to build a new power plant fueled by natural gas. Gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and it is extremely reliable and easy to fire up on demand, to back up renewable resources when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

But I don’t like the idea of replacing one imported fossil fuel with another. I don’t trust natural gas prices. They are low because of the recession but they have a long record of volatility. Cranking up another cookie cutter gas plant may be tempting, but it is far from innovative. And it would cut jobs rather than creating them, because coal plants provide more jobs than gas plants.

Jobs Watch: Transformational thinking

You can’t accuse John Kitzhaber of thinking small. After seven years of tilting at the windmills of our hopelessly inefficient national health care system, he is running for governor on a platform of transformational change. The theme of systemic transformation has permeated his public speeches since his last stint as governor, and it is also the central idea behind his economic strategy for Oregon, which he presented to the public yesterday at the Portland offices of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

If ever there was a time for transformational change in Oregon, it is now. Joblessness is rampant, wages are stagnant, and scarcity has given birth to increasingly ugly partisan battles. Big change is in order, but what exactly to change, and how?

Kitzhaber’s economic strategy, developed in collaboration with Robert Young, an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon, contains strong ideas for building on Oregon’s strengths. It calls for aggressive investments in areas where Oregon has a distinct edge already, such as energy efficiency and woody biomass. A statewide campaign to retrofit all public buildings to make them more efficient would create jobs immediately and sharpen the state’s green edge. An effort to thin forests responsibly to reduce fire risks while feeding the state’s growing biomass industry could bring new hope to Oregon’s struggling timber towns.

Jobs Watch: Brewing up success

UPDATE (April 7) : Figures released today by the Oregon Brewers Guild show that 2009 was the best year ever for craft brewers. For the first time, total production topped a million barrels of beer, a 15% increase over 2008.

It’s always good to start the New Year on a positive note, so let’s dispose of the leftover faux champagne and talk Oregon beer. The Eugene Register Guard reported yesterday that Ninkasi Brewing has become the first Oregon brewer to earn regional brewery status in a decade. Ninkasi, which added 10 jobs in 2009, is on track to crank out 30,000 barrels of beer this year, about 10 times the amount it brewed when it first launched just three years ago. By crossing the threshold from brewpub to regional brewer, this growing business joins Oregon icons such as Rogue Ales, Full Sail Brewing and Deschutes Brewery in an industry as resilient as it is quirky.

Oregon continues to buck the national trend by opening new breweries from the Caldera Brewpub in Ashland to Mt. Emily Alehouse in La Grande and Mutiny Brewing in Joseph. The market for craft beer in Oregon is four times as strong as the national average, boosting an industry with more than 5,000 jobs. Portland leads the nation in urban brewpubs, with more than 40 and counting. Most other states have experienced a net loss of brewpubs during the recession, but Oregon has gained several dozen including, I am thrilled to report, two soon to open within walking distance of my home.

Locally crafted beer is just the latest in an amazing string of improvements that have transformed NE 28th into one of Portland’s most vibrant neighborhoods. This once-dumpy business district is now overflowing with great restaurants, lively cafes, bike racks and unusual shops. If you want to feel better about Oregon’s economic prospects, take a stroll along 28th from Glisan to Stark some evening when it isn’t raining and stop into a few places at random. The place is hopping, and it will only get better with the addition of Migration Brewing and Coalition Brewing.

Jobs Watch: A rough year, but it's all relative

One of the advantages of working for a monthly publication is the week-long holiday we all take to recharge for the new year, a little time to step back and let others feed the media beast. It's a nice perk any year, but after 2009 a few days of rest and reflection are more vital than ever. I can't say I enjoyed 2009, but I did survive it. You know things are iffy when you feel fortunate just to have a job that isn't getting chopped and a home that isn't getting sold out from under you through foreclosure. I believe it was Einstein who said that it's all relative.

For better or worse, I'm entering my 22nd year of journalism in 2010. I've covered deadly dull town board meetings in Guilderland, NY, surreal street demonstrations in Seattle and commercial fishing on Lake Malawi. As careers go it's been borderline when measured by pay. Another way to look at it is that I've gotten front-row access to great events and amazing people, and I've gotten paid to hunt things down and write about my findings. There are worse ways to go through life than following your instincts from story to story.

If you had told me 25 years ago I would end up working as managing editor for a business publication, I would have suggested you put down the crack pipe and guess again. But here I am. I had not covered business fulltime before taking this job almost exactly two years ago, and in my fervor to embrace my new beat I started reading The Wall Street Journal every day and talking to as many executives and analysts as possible. That's when I started getting this strong sense of impending doom. One of my first major stories for the magazine was The Party's Over, a dark look at group denial, the housing market and the Oregon economy.

Jobs Watch: A bear of a labor market

It's the holiday socializing season, and that means a lot of catching up with friends and acquaintances, no small percentage of whom are looking for work in a job market that is simply not improving. The conversation can turn complicated quickly when you ask the old standard, "What are you up to these days?"

I wish I could start a company with the people I've spoken to randomly over the past week or so who are struggling in their search for work. They include two top-notch copy editors, an apparel expert, a Reed College grad with a great attitude and awesome baking skills, an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights, a hot-stuff investigative reporter and a college graduate with cafe and bar experience who has yet to receive a single response for her job applications through Craigslist. OK, so this would make for a highly unusual business team. But you get the point: Oregon is packed with smart, talented people who are eager to work — if only there were jobs. No doubt you know plenty of people in similar situations.

The latest unemployment figures show that the state has lost 84,300 private sector jobs from November 2008 to November 2009. That's a 6% decline overall, with construction jobs down 15.1%, manufacturing jobs down 14% and real estate jobs down 14.2%. Those numbers seem even worse when you think of where Oregon's economy was a year ago. Things weren't exactly popping then, and they've skidded downhill from there.

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