BY BRANDON SAWYER
Click on any graph to view larger.
From two-by-fours to semiconductors to frozen peas, Oregon has a storied history of making things to export out of state, bringing in much needed revenue and employing generations of Oregonians in family-wage jobs. But since the crash of timber industries in the 1980s and years of off-shoring mania by U.S. companies, the media has long reported that manufacturing is dying.
Reports of its death, however, are greatly exaggerated. Today, diverse industries are building on the state’s manufacturing legacy, taking advantage of cheap power, pristine water, rich natural resources and easy access to the Pacific Rim. In 2010, manufacturing’s 22% share of gross domestic product (GDP) made Oregon No. 2, behind Indiana, a jump from No. 18 in 2001. Looking ahead as global dynamics shift, the state could be poised for “on-shoring,” a return of manufacturing from abroad. By 2020, manufacturing jobs are projected to grow 15% in Oregon, as they decline 0.6% nationwide.
The picture isn’t all rosy. While health care and other service jobs expanded over the past 20 years, manufacturers have automated operations and increased efficiency. As a result, manufacturing represents a diminishing share of Oregon’s labor force, from 20% in 1990 to less than 13% in 2010.
Nevertheless, following the Great Recession, employment in a number of durable goods industries has bounced back, and the state actually added food and beverage jobs through the recession.
A surge in exports, especially high-tech and metal products, is driving that growth. Computer and electronic products comprised 79% of Oregon’s durable goods GDP in 2009, up from 50% in 1999. The sector added 3.7% more jobs in 2011, surpassing 36,000, by far the largest and best-paid group of manufacturing workers in the state. The Employment Department projects 14% more of these jobs this decade. Likewise, fabricated metal products, machinery and transportation equipment grew 7% and primary metals grew 4%. All are projected to grow more than 20% by 2020.
“[These] are good examples of Oregon manufacturing that can take advantage of exporting,” says Nick Beleiciks, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department. “They’re competing on a national and global scale.”
Even wood products manufacturing, as it crawls out of the real estate crater, is expected to add 14% more jobs by the end of the decade after losing 40% between 2001 and 2010. In doing so, it lost its place as second-largest manufacturing employer to food manufacturing, which grew jobs a remarkable 7.3% in the last decade.
Despite the rebound, jobs in manufacturing are still endangered. For example, computer and electronics employed nearly 50,000 in 2001, about 14,000 more than it does today. “This industry took big advantage of off-shoring,” says Beleiciks. With final assembly overseas there was “a huge impact on the number of people working so what they’re doing [here] now is really the high-end stuff.”
Technological improvements in food processing also impact jobs, as employers “can make more food with less people,” Beleiciks says.