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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Jobs Watch: The return of the mega project

The economy must be picking up again, because the focus in Portland has shifted from hanging on for dear life to Utopian exercises in rebuilding. There are now three redevelopment projects in the works midway between my home and my office, and each has potential. Taken as a whole, they could provide a nice boost to a job market that needs all the help it can get. Or they could represent the latest in a series of misguided attempts to use public money to create private-sector jobs.

In addition to the Blazers and Nike and their compelling ideas for turning the Rose Quarter into JumpTown, the Portland Development Commission is also dusting off two long-delayed proposals to upgrade under-used chunks of land near the Willamette River.

The first project involves the old Centennial Mills waterfront property, between the Fremont and Broadway Bridges downriver from Union Station. I’ve read the project proposal from developer LAB Holding LLC of Costa Mesa, Calif., and I have to say that other than the excessively cute quotes praising food, I am impressed. The idea is to connect the Pearl District with the river through a mix of food market stalls, gardens, retail shops, kayak rentals, restaurants, galleries, a culinary school and offices. A pedestrian bridge would span SW Naito Parkway. An amphitheater would face the river. There are plans for an orchard, a grain garden, a greenhouse, even a tree-house and an outdoor fireplace. No one can accuse this team of lacking ideas.

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Jobs Watch: What's impeding progress?

Andrew Revkin, the great environmental writer for The New York Times, was in town last night, and once I got over his nearly unforgivable mistake of referring to Oregon as “Ore-a-Gone,” I had to admit he had some compelling things to say. One line that stuck with me in particular was, “We don’t have time on Planet Earth for impeded potential.”

My first internal response was, what do you mean we don’t have time for impeded potential? That’s like saying there’s no time for procrastination. Anybody who writes for a living can tell you that there is always time for procrastination.

Take the Rose Quarter: 35 acres in the heart of the city, with two major entertainment venues next to a busy transit station. The place should be hopping 365 days a year, right? It should be as much of a part of the Portland fabric as are the Blazers.

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Jobs Watch: Rose-colored visions

The Rose Quarter lies roughly halfway between my home and my office, and every time I roll past I wonder how such a prime piece of urban property can manage to be so very lame, in so many ways. Where are the quirky cafes, the funky breweries, the dance halls and the music clubs, the bike shops and the pool halls? Nothing but chain restaurants and endless parking lots: visionary urban planning circa 1975. This is not the Portland I know and love. It makes sense for the city and the Blazers to redevelop the quarter into something that reflects the soul of the city, because there’s really nowhere to go but up. The neighborhood just hasn’t been the same since it got bulldozed.

J.E. Isaac, the Blazers’ senior VP of Business Affairs, has a name for the neighborhood to come: JumpTown, a “green, vibrant and economically viable Rose Quarter.”

Can’t argue with that. But how to get there?

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Jobs Watch: The power of negative thinking

The latest numbers show that Oregon has lost 124,300 jobs since I took this job in December of 2007. Clearly my writing is not good for the state’s economy. So forgive me if I dispense with the cheerleading and point out a few observations that give me reason for concern.

It starts with the banks. Lake Oswego-headquartered West Coast Bank is the latest to receive an ominously worded “cease and desist” order from the FDIC. That makes three important regional banks struggling for survival, if you add Columbia River Bank of The Dalles and Bank of the Cascades in Bend. Plus the complex situation of ShoreBank Pacific, which is wholly owned by a holding company operating under a cease and desist order of its own. These banks have to improve their capital positions or else, and that means they will be more reluctant to loan than ever.

Then there’s retail. Is it me or is the premature Christmas glitter looking even more desperate than usual this season? I realize that retail drives the economy, 70% of which is based on consumer spending. But is it really the duty of every American to purchase all the world’s plastic junk? Consumers lack confidence for a reason. With so many companies cutting costs, salaries and jobs, how much longer can consumers be expected to over-spend?

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