By Emma Hall
Founded in 1920, the League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed participation in government. A few dozen members of the Portland chapter and their guests gathered in the Board Room at the Multnomah County Building on March 8 for the group's monthly meeting. Men and women of all ages (though admittedly mostly older) buzzed excitedly about the month's chosen topic: "The Oregon and Portland Economy--What's the Story?" Although many depressing statistics were tossed around, the outlook remained positive as industry experts and prominent local CEOs gave a check-up on the Portland region's economic health.
First to address the attendees was Sandra McDonough, President and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance. She showed slides with information from economist Tim Duy that illustrated the state of Oregon's economy. For example, one slide showed that the average wage in Portland's 4-county region has been on a 12 year decline--rather than just declining in the recent recession.
McDonough explained that compared to other states, in Oregon fewer people work, and the hours and weeks that they do work are considerably less. Oregon is ranked 50th in terms of average hours worked each week, and 49th in weeks worked each year. This illustrates Oregon's greatest employment problem - that not only do we have high unemployment, but we also have so many underemployed and part-time workers.
Next, Duncan Wyse, President of the Oregon Business Council, spoke to the League. He explained that his mother has been a member of the League of Women Voters for about 50 years, and growing up eavesdropping on the smart women talking politics in the kitchen is partially what made him the self-described "policy wonk" that he is today.
Wyse echoed many of McDonough's statements, and emphasized that a major issue he sees with Oregon's economy is that we aren't producing a sufficiently educated workforce. Although Oregon spends a high amount of money per student compared to many states, we have one of the lowest rates of high school students continuing on to college, he said.
Wyse also encouraged the gathered voters to emphasize redesigning social services, rather than perpetuating the same debate between raising taxes or cutting services.
After McDonough and Wyse gave an overview of the current state of the economy in Oregon, Neil Nelson, president and CEO of the Siltronic Corporation, spoke to the group. Siltronic employs 850 people at an 85-acre location in Northwest Portland.
Siltronic makes silicon wafers, the starting material for electronic products. They are now the third largest worldwide producer of the wafers, providing them locally to Intel as well as to international companies.
Nelson said that what it takes for a company to grow in Portland is for the company to provide the right product and price structure. To help companies such as his, he said Portland needs to support higher education in order to provide a ready workforce. A viable transportation system to help with shipping is also necessary.
The final speaker was Jake Nichol, president and CEO of the Leatherman Tool Group, a growing privately held company which employs 380 people at its Portland plant. Nichol said that a new undertaking his company is starting is an apprenticeship program. That is their way of encouraging education. He also explained that company founder Tim Leatherman has promised to keep the company in Oregon, despite receiving numerous calls from the governor of Idaho encouraging them to move their business there.
Despite the realistic and grim statistics presented, attendees seemed to leave the League meeting with hope for the future. After all, Oregon is strong in international trade, and ranked 10th in the nation for small business job creation. If the success of Siltronic (with a 2010 revenue of $1.4 billion) and Leatherman are any indication, Oregon's economy is on the rise.
Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business Magazine.