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

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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.

Looking back over that piece today, I realize I was wrong. Not that I was too grim — my mistake was that I was not grim enough. The economy crashed more explosively than I had anticipated, and the impact on Oregon has been more extreme than any of my sources dared to predict. The state's unemployment rate more than doubled in less than a year. Even the mortgage industry insiders who got me excited about the story in the first place say they still can't believe the extent of the economic wreckage — and they're not convinced it's resolved. I'd love to say the job market will bounce back in Oregon in 2010 and all of the talented people looking for work here will find it in the new year. But I'm not feeling it. For the overwhelming majority of people out there who don't have deep expertise with unmanned aircraft, radio frequency technology, financial compliance software, or air traffic control, the opportunities will be scarce and the competition intense. When a mundane food service ad on Craigslist draws hundreds of resumes, you know we are nowhere near true recovery.

Still, it's all relative. As I noted earlier, I've spent time in Africa. My wife, Christina, and I took an unorthodox six-month honeymoon to Malawi in late 1999 and early 2000. We spent Y2K on Mumbo Island. We also wandered into more AIDS funerals than I care to recall. I accompanied Christina on rounds at the hospital, and we had to step over the patients and family members lying on the floor to get from one bed to the next.

Oregon has problems with unemployment, but the rate is not over 50 percent as it was in Malawi when I was there. Wages are down, but they do not average out to less than $300 per capita. Health care is a money-sucking mess, but we're not losing one-tenth of our population to AIDS and thousands of children to malaria.

I remember returning from Malawi and finding myself in the Fred Meyer store at 39th and Hawthorne in Portland, staring at the label of some item or another. It may have been a jar of honey purportedly containing product from Brazil, Switzerland, China and/or New Zealand. Or a fuzzy Oregon Duck made in China. I don't recall the specific product but I remember the feeling. Something large and heavy swept over me and I seriously nearly fell over. By the time I managed to find my wife back in the parking lot, she gave me a puzzled, slightly concerned and more-than-slightly irritated look and asked me, "Where WERE you?"

I couldn't really answer. Readers familiar with Ignatius J. Reilly's ill-fated ride on a double-decker bus in the novel A Confederacy of Dunces know that some visceral responses are best left undescribed. Over the course of six months in Malawi I spent a lot of time exploring marketplaces, and for whatever reason that experience seemed to have crippled my ability to wander aimlessly through an American super-store. I couldn't just stroll past these heaps of stuff without thousands of questions ricocheting around in my head. What IS this stuff? Where does it all come from? What is it for? Who makes it? Why? How does it get here? Why does it all come here? Who pays for it all and how? How can this exist in the same world as the markets of Malawi?

The scarcity in Malawi was extreme — an entire nation with not one ATM machine, not one movie theater. Children sculpted their own toys from recycled wire. We bought a sack of 60 mangoes once for the equivalent of a dollar, after visiting a hospital full of kids with broken limbs from falling out of mango trees and adults missing limbs entirely from crocodile attacks. Out on the back roads elderly women carried sacks of maize on their heads that would have buckled the knees of your average high school student. Up in the mountains we got passed by barefoot mill workers hauling cedar planks 3,000 vertical feet down from the highlands to the village.

Since returning from Malawi a decade ago, I've been less than enthusiastic about the conspicuous consumption that supposedly drives our economy. As someone who reports on jobs I understand that 70 percent of our economy is derived from consumer spending. I know that and I accept it; I just can't participate. I still get freaked out by the feeding frenzy at places like Walmart as people crowd in to get the latest products, buying on credit when the debit card maxes out. Being a good, obedient consumer, trying not to think too deeply about the interest rate the bank is charging you. Is that really the key to our economic recovery right now? A mass return to over-spending on credit?

But hey, I'm no Scrooge. I'm no Grinch. Quite the contrary, I make it a point to pour a nice chunk of money into the local economy when this time of year rolls around. I've even recovered — somewhat — from my fear of super-stores. It's a short walk from my house to the nearest Fred Meyer, and I expect I'll be be making that walk plenty of times over the holidays to pick up Dungeness Crab, Oregon beer and as many necessities and non-necessities as I can carry home. Walking through the front door with a sack full of goodies for the kids is a ritual I love and one that I appreciate more deeply than ever as we finally slam the door on 2009 and hope for the best — while preparing for the worst — in 2010.

Ben Jacklet is the managing editor of Oregon Business.

 
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