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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.

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.

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.

Jobs Watch: Brewing up success

UPDATE (April 7) : Figures released today by the Oregon Brewers Guild show that 2009 was the best year ever for craft brewers. For the first time, total production topped a million barrels of beer, a 15% increase over 2008.

It’s always good to start the New Year on a positive note, so let’s dispose of the leftover faux champagne and talk Oregon beer. The Eugene Register Guard reported yesterday that Ninkasi Brewing has become the first Oregon brewer to earn regional brewery status in a decade. Ninkasi, which added 10 jobs in 2009, is on track to crank out 30,000 barrels of beer this year, about 10 times the amount it brewed when it first launched just three years ago. By crossing the threshold from brewpub to regional brewer, this growing business joins Oregon icons such as Rogue Ales, Full Sail Brewing and Deschutes Brewery in an industry as resilient as it is quirky.

Oregon continues to buck the national trend by opening new breweries from the Caldera Brewpub in Ashland to Mt. Emily Alehouse in La Grande and Mutiny Brewing in Joseph. The market for craft beer in Oregon is four times as strong as the national average, boosting an industry with more than 5,000 jobs. Portland leads the nation in urban brewpubs, with more than 40 and counting. Most other states have experienced a net loss of brewpubs during the recession, but Oregon has gained several dozen including, I am thrilled to report, two soon to open within walking distance of my home.

Locally crafted beer is just the latest in an amazing string of improvements that have transformed NE 28th into one of Portland’s most vibrant neighborhoods. This once-dumpy business district is now overflowing with great restaurants, lively cafes, bike racks and unusual shops. If you want to feel better about Oregon’s economic prospects, take a stroll along 28th from Glisan to Stark some evening when it isn’t raining and stop into a few places at random. The place is hopping, and it will only get better with the addition of Migration Brewing and Coalition Brewing.

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

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.

Jobs Watch: A bear of a labor market

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.

Jobs Watch: Why we lag behind

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.

Jobs Watch: Working on the water

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.

Jobs Watch: The never-ending quest

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.

Jobs Watch: Why sacrifice Geithner?

Like Peter DeFazio, I’m no economist. And I have some serious questions about some of the ways our public money has been spent in the name of rescuing the economy. But I completely disagree with DeFazio’s call for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

DeFazio, the hard-nosed veteran Democrat from Springfield, offered up his view that Geithner should be fired during an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal. His reasoning: “All the gambling on Wall Street is doing nothing to put people back to work in America and rebuild our economy.” This made immediate news because a lot of people, myself included, are fed up with hearing about how well the economy is recovering while the nation — and Oregon — continue to lose jobs.

But let’s pause for a minute and consider what Geithner inherited, and where we stand today. I don’t know about you, but I had a strong case of economic doom one year ago. Between the headlines oozing out from the Lehman collapse and the AIG “rescue,” and the impending potential collapse of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America and Citigroup, I was losing faith in the financial system. I don’t have that feeling today. The markets are coming back and Oregon’s unemployment rate is finally easing back down, albeit painfully slowly.

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