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.
If all goes as announced today, the beleaguered Ash Grove Cement plant will lay off 68 of its 116 workers. Most of the employees of the Durkee factory live in Baker County, which has an unemployment rate of 10.4%. That does not include the job losses at Ash Grove, one of the county’s biggest employers that’s faltering because of the recession.
That 10.4% figure (for October) is a little better than the state’s November unemployment rate of 11.1%, which is uncommon for rural counties. But regional economist Jason Yohannan told the Baker City Herald that the Ash Grove layoffs would overshadow four months of steady rates. “I wouldn’t get too upbeat about a couple months of stable unemployment numbers,” he said.
Another story in the Herald had Huntington residents also concerned about the loss of Ash Grove jobs. “Hopefully these layoffs will be temporary. Ash Grove is vital to this community, and to the entire area,” one resident told the Herald. “Those are good-paying, steady jobs with good benefits.”
Economist John Mitchell was miked and prowling the audience, a business breakfast crowd’s Oprah without the free cars or gift baskets. At one point during Mitchell’s detailed but entertaining and humorous summary of the bitter economy, a man whispered to his tablemate: “I could use a glass of wine.”
Mitchell is a well-known war horse on the speaker’s circuit. Now a consultant, he was the chief economist for U.S. Bancorp for years and has been making economic presentations around the country and region for decades. Mitchell was at the Governor Hotel presenting his 2010 economic forecast at a forum hosted by the Portland Business Alliance Wednesday, and as he paced around the room, he went through a painful recounting of where we stand.Among the litany of woe: every state has year-over-year employment declines; it's longest recession in 78 years; and the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar spent. Yet, technically the recession is over with third-quarter 2009 seeing a small rise in GDP; housing might have reached its bottom; the global economy is improving; and there has been an uptick in employment over the past few months in 28 states.
Like craft beer, rich coffee and innovative public transportation, bicycling stands out as quintessentially Portland. An ironic trait given where Portlanders actually live, yet the bike business has managed to boom over the past few years. “It’s not like this town is made for cycling,” says Chris Di Stefano, director of marketing for Chris King Precision Components. “It’s not flat here and the weather is not kind. It really is the spirit of the people, and in this case, the spirit of businesspeople."
Di Stefano was one of six local industry panelists at an American Marketing Association luncheon this week in Northeast Portland. The discussion was centered on the city’s increasingly popular bike culture, what makes Portland a major hub and how all kinds of businesses can capitalize on the ever-growing market.
There’s no question Portland has established itself as a national leader in bike-friendliness, but the world is taking notice, too. “I moved here six years ago [for] the promise of what Portland was becoming, and the more I travel around the country and around the world for cycling, everyone wants to talk about Portland,” Di Stefano says. And he says the local industry’s extraordinary growth over the past five years has as much to do with straight-up biking businesses (manufacturers, parts retailers, etc.) as with bike-related services, such as panelist Charlie Wicker’s Trailhead Coffee Roasters, which delivers coffee throughout the Portland area on bike.
State labor economist Art Ayre took the stage before Portland’s City Club last Friday to try to explain Oregon’s persistent problem with high unemployment. It’s easy enough to understand why statewide unemployment shot up from 5 percent in early 2007 to 12 percent in early 2009. The economy was crashing and jobs were vanishing everywhere. But why was Oregon among the hardest hit, once again? Why has Oregon exceeded the national average for unemployment for 25 of the past 31 years?
Ayre would seem to be the perfect person to answer that question. He’s been Oregon’s employment economist since 1999, and he is one of the most studious and well-informed public servants we have. His inquiry into the matter ran deep and broad. But his answers were disappointing.
Ayre’s research found that population growth, demographic trends and state tax policies have limited if any impact on jobless rates. He also reported that in his opinion, Oregon’s higher-than-average minimum wage has minimal effect, and the same goes for the decline of the timber industry.
I caught up with Nick Furman while he was driving up the Oregon Coast this morning, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was liking what he was seeing: a gorgeous, clear day out on the water, boats working relatively calm seas, fishermen hauling in pot after pot boiling with Dungeness crabs.
“It’s a great sight,” said Furman, executive director of the Charleston-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “We’re off to a good start.”
With the unfortunate exception of the Manatee, a small wooden boat that sunk in Coos Bay (everyone was rescued, thankfully), Oregon’s healthiest fishery is looking healthier than ever this December. The price to the fisherman is starting at $1.75 per pound and expected to rise as the season progresses. The weather has been cooperative and boats are coming to shore early, loaded to the decks with big, meaty crabs.
I didn’t throw myself against glass doors on Black Friday to be one of the first shoppers to snag one of those freaky little robot hamsters ("Zhu Zhu Pets don’t poop, die or stink, but they are still a riot of motion and sound!”). And I didn’t spend all my time surfing the web on Cyber Monday. I actually was working at my computer all day (really, boss, I was).
I’ve basically stopped shopping, and I’m beginning to feel like a Communist since I’m being told that my willingness to spend, even if it’s a stupid thing to do, is the only thing that will save the country. And now I have those poor rich bastards in Dubai to worry about.
My fellow business and news writers have breathlessly charted the biggest shopping days of the year this past week as if they were witnessing the end of the world. Will the American consumer come back in force? Will they spend more or less? What will happen if they don’t grossly spend beyond their means and the world economy sinks even lower!? I thought at one point a TV interviewer was going to pass out from the anxiety of it all. Santa, please bring me one TV news show that knows the difference between covering frenzied Wal-Mart shoppers and covering Hurricane Katrina.
I launched Jobs Watch during the darkest days of the recession with the goal of identifying businesses that are strategically positioned to lead Oregon out of the recession. I’m not talking about cutting jobs to achieve higher profits in the manner of Hewlett-Packard, but rather creating jobs by smartly tapping into hot markets. It’s no easy task to grow in an economy still wobbling near a precipice, but it can be done.
So who’s doing it in Oregon?
I attempted to answer that question in our December cover story by focusing on six companies that are charging into 2010 with a profound sense of optimism. The companies I chose are Ziba Design, Smarsh, New Seasons Market, TriQuint Semiconductors, HemCon and SolarWorld. Obviously, that list is by no means complete, but it makes for a compelling lineup. The niches these companies are exploiting and even reinventing are hardly uniform (everything from natural foods to radiofrequency technology) but as businesses they share some common strengths: inspired leadership, a sense of purpose and a savvy understanding of what lies ahead.
Okay, so we get the point: The business summit is not a high priority for our readers, at least not for the readers who vote in our online polls. Last week’s poll about the Oregon Business Council’s decision to cancel this year’s summit drew a mere 57 votes. The answer that earned the most votes (44%) was, “Doesn’t matter. Wasn’t productive.”
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