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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.

Editor's Notes: The tax rumble settles nothing

The tax rumble is over. The Sharks beat the hell out of the Jets. But everyone woke up this morning bruised and battered by the fight. It’s hard to feel great, even if you win, when the street is covered with blood and you realize the fight settled nothing.

For weeks, the Yes lead fighter, Steve “Bernardo” Novick, and the No frontman, Pat “Riff” McCormick, have been tied at the wrists, knives in the other hand, circling and slashing one another on street corners everywhere.

With last night’s passage by the voters of tax increase Measures 66 and 67, the cops blew the whistle and broke up the $12 million rumble. By a solid margin, Oregonians decided to raise taxes on households with taxable income above $250,000, approved higher minimum taxes on corporations and increased the tax rate on upper-level profits.

On The Scene: Portland gets animated

Portland is a town chock full of creative folks, as our booming music and art scenes can attest to. And after posting a record year in 2009 for filming activity, Oregon is even becoming more popular as a shooting location for movies and television series. But Portland still has a long way to go before Hollywood needs to worry, and Hinge Digital hopes to get the ball rolling.

The Hinge founders spoke at the Pearl District’s Gerding Theater at the Armory last night, as part of The Art Institute of Portland’s “Community by Design Speaker Series.” With more than four decades of experience between them at studios such as Laika and Disney, Roland Gauthier, Michael Kuehn and Alex Tysowsky shared with the intimate audience of students and industry members why they decided to start their animation and visual effects studio in Portland last year, and how the city could tap into its creative potential to become a go-to source for digital content.

What first attracted the Hinge founders to Portland – after spending years working in Los Angeles and the Bay Area – were the same things that have drawn many people looking to get out of the rat race: the fresh air, friendly people and overall quality of life. But perhaps more important to their business was the strong sense of community they found among Portlanders, who were instrumental in helping Hinge get off the ground. “It’s a lot different in L.A., much more competitive, much more ‘dog eat dog,’” Kuehn says. “You don’t get the same sort of genuine help that you do here.” And while it’s true that Portland is not exactly a hot spot for the digital content business, that fact was another selling point for the Hinge founders. “If you look at a place like Los Angeles or other industry hubs, they’re pretty well-saturated,” Kuehn says. “Oregon is very much untapped, so there’s a lot of potential here.”

Editor's Notes: Read it and don't weep

The Tri-County News in Junction City and the West Lane News in Veneta died in late December so quickly that they didn’t even have time to write their own obit. The weeklies had been publishing for many decades.

“I just don’t have the money to continue,” owner Andrew Polin, who bought the weeklies in April 2008, told the Eugene Register-Guard. “I’m hoping it will be resurrected by someone.”

That someone came along this week. Not a deep-pocket investor or big-city chain, but a couple of former dishwashers who believe their community needs a local newspaper. Lorenzo Herrera, Nelson Rosales and Jennifer Rosales sent out birth announcements yesterday, proudly announcing that their Tri-County Tribune would begin publishing weekly on Jan. 28.

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.

On The Scene: Gauging the smart-meter trend

Green continues to be the hot color as we enter another decade, and sustainability efforts are still developing everywhere, particularly in Portland. Electric cars are charging into the auto sector, and more local businesses are offering sustainable products to draw in environmentally conscious consumers. But as the market becomes saturated with all kinds of green services, where else can entrepreneurs look for opportunities? The home or workplace might be a good place to start.

Industry experts and budding entrepreneurs alike met at the swanky Perkins Coie office in Portland’s Pearl District this week for a roundtable discussion on smart-meter trends, and the increasing deployment of the meters in homes and businesses to support a smart-grid system. The discussion was hosted by the Oregon branch of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a nonprofit entrepreneurship group with 53 chapters worldwide. While the attendees spent a good part of the discussion engaging in tangential, friendly debates, the topic focused on some key questions: What opportunities are available for entrepreneurs? And what challenges do they face trying to break into the market?

Supporting a smart-grid network was among the priorities for the Obama administration last year, which announced a $3.4 billion investment for the grid’s development, $30 million of which went to Oregon. The smart meters making up the grid are aimed at providing effective, two-way communication between the consumer and the utility for maximum energy efficiency, while also spurring the economy as a bonus. And with 20% compounded annual growth, technology such as smart meters would not only be good for energy consumption, but also for customers by allowing more accurate bills, among other things. But for entrepreneurs, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of access to meter data due to privacy concerns – a big conversation starter at this discussion given the information’s significance in developing business ideas around the meters themselves.

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.

Editor's Notes: Higher ed's good, bad news

Two pieces of higher education news swam across the flotsam and jetsam of my desk in the past few days. Higher ed news always catches my attention because of its fundamental connection to business.

The Joint Boards of Education, which consists of the Boards of Education and Higher Education, and the Oregon Business Council met as the “Tri-Board” last week to discuss how K-12 and higher education can partner with the business community and, according to OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner, “to determine what students should be learning, and how to evaluate that learning, not just course by course, but as the cumulative result of a college experience.”

The result was that the Tri-board approved standardized credits for the International Baccalaureate classes passed by high school students; approved statewide standards for the General Education course to make it easier to transfer; and approved clarification of the coursework included in the Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree.

On The Scene: Web ideas for a new day

A new year means a fresh start, and the business community could certainly use one after the bleakness that was 2009. Any signs of inspiration or progress are welcome, and one needs to look no further than the startup community to find examples. And in Portland, the web/software scene has already started cooking up ideas, both big and small.

This week I stopped by the home base of the Portland Incubator Experiment, a glossy workspace that fits right in with the glitzy Pearl District surrounding it. PIE was launched just last year as a way to bring the web community together and give them a space – provided by Wieden + Kennedy – to collaborate and share resources. PIE held its Demolicious! event last night, a quarterly showcase for Portland’s web innovators to share their latest ideas.

Among them was Jason Glaspey, founder of membership diet website Paleo Plan. As an active participant in CrossFit exercise programs, Glaspey knew there were many in the community who were interested in the Paleo diet, but there wasn’t a good deal of user-friendly information about the diet available. Glaspey began putting together a website using WordPress, a Suma plugin, WooThemes, Adwords, Campaign Monitor and a handful of recipes that fit the Paleo standards; $2,500 in out-of-pocket expenses and a few weeks later, Paleo Plan was launched at the end of last year. With downloadable meal plans and shopping lists available in addition to the constantly updated recipe roster, Glaspey says the site is already close to turning a profit thanks to the new partnerships – and free promotion – he developed with some CrossFit gyms shortly after launching.