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.
I did not lose 10 pounds, learn French or save more for retirement. I did not call my mother more often, did not curb my iPhone app addiction and certainly came nowhere near being more forgiving and accepting of the weaknesses and irritating habits of others. And that promise to spend less time on Gawker? Crikey. I’m up to three hours a day now that Tiger News has gone 24-7.
The New Year’s resolutions I made 12 months ago are in a pathetic dead heap at my feet as 2010 rounds the bend. But hope springs eternal and I’m ready to make a new batch. Over at 43things.com, 84,659 people have made 172,613 resolutions. The top five: lose weight, be happy, fall in love, get a job, travel. Fall in love is a resolution? The serendipity of romance clearly is a last-century deal.
Anyway, goody for those 84,659 people, but I need to lower the bar. So I resolve to never step on a weight scale again, never say Avatar changed my life, and never utter the phrase “lipstick on a pig.”
Helvetia is a quaint community just a few miles west of Portland, whose Swiss-settler roots are reflected in its simplicity. Often nicknamed "Intel's playground," Helvetia draws cyclists and runners from the metro area while bringing in more than 100,000 visitors a year with agri-tourism businesses like wineries and pumpkin patches. And with a number of working farms, it's a regional and statewide resource — and residents would like to keep it that way.
The fate of the community was among the topics of discussion at a debate earlier this week sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Forest Grove News-Times. The forum, taped at the Hillsboro Civic Center for OPB's "Think Out Loud" program, featured Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Washington County Chair Tom Brian discussing the pros and cons of expanding the Urban Growth Boundary in Washington County.
Metro and representatives from the three Portland-area counties are gearing up to decide whether to expand the UGB and what land to set aside as urban reserves for possible future development. A resident of Helvetia was at the forum expressing her concerns about the community being included in the urban reserves; now it seems only part of Helvetia is on the table for inclusion, but residents are now worried about Helvetia being split. But judging from the sound bites collected by OPB, Washington County residents generally have mixed views about the overall region growing up vs. growing out.
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.
- Editor's Notes: Robot hamsters and me
- Jobs Watch: The never-ending quest
- The OB Poll: What's next for our universities?
- Jobs Watch: Why sacrifice Geithner?
- Editor's Notes: Celebrating arts heroes
- Jobs Watch: The return of the mega project
- Editor's Notes: Leadership summit cancelled
- The OB Poll: Dumping on JumpTown