Must Reads

Job Watch: Wading in the shallow end

I don’t know about you, but my neighborhood pool has been a bit over-crowded lately, closer to human stew than the Mediterranean. I’ve spent quite a few evenings there over the past week, soaking in shallow water while the kids swim free, catching up on what the parents have to say about their jobs — or former jobs.

Not surprisingly, I’ve heard some grim stuff: 60-hour work weeks cut down to a trickle, law firms giving up on a decent recovery until somewhere in 2010, newcomers with advanced degrees and great ideas getting nowhere with their job searches.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the economy — and the pools for that matter — might be more appealing elsewhere. But then the other day I wandered into a shallow-end conversation that gave me a completely different impression. I had met Prashant before through the usual stuff, tennis and kids and so forth, but we had never really talked. What I didn’t know is that he’s held executive positions with local firms like Tripwire and Fios; he’s launched a start-up and business is pouring in faster than he can handle it. His partner is a lawyer who lives across the street, and he says that tons of people from his neighborhood are seizing on the momentary lull to build new businesses. As you might expect, he’s got a substantially brighter view of the current trend towards frugality, because it is creating exactly the sort of environment he needs to convince companies to take a chance on his value proposition.

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Job Watch: finding survival tactics

For the second month in a row, we are scrambling to revise a story about a great local business that has been harder hit than expected by the continuing recession.

Last month it was Pendleton Woolen Mills, a 100-year old Oregon icon that surprised us by announcing that 45 employees would be laid off as we were preparing to put our August issue to bed. This month it’s a local bank to be named later that has been dealing with hard-nosed FDIC regulators scouring through every record, email and report they could unearth. My conversations with the CEO went from fascinating to ominous over the course of the past several weeks, and we agreed that running a story before the matter is clarified with a formal FDIC report would be unwise for the magazine as well as the bank.

Both of these stories were slotted for our Tactics page, where we explore a company and its leaders, what they are facing and how they are proceeding and why. I’m a big fan of the page, because it strives to dig deeper than the usual business profile by shaving off the fluff and honing in on what is crucial. Unfortunately, more and more of these pieces are reflecting the harsh reality that for many businesses, the over-riding goal for 2009 is simply to remain in business. Our research editor Brandon Sawyer quipped the other day that maybe we should rename the page Survival Tactics.

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The gift that keeps shrinking

The latest round of job losses at the Portland Tribune comes as little surprise to those of us who launched that paper in 2001.

Managing editor Todd Murphy has quit in frustration after learning about a plan for sizable newsroom cuts that he didn't like. In the end the features section was eliminated, two reporters were laid off and one sportswriter was reassigned to the news section. It could have been much worse, and had Murphy not elected to leave, it probably would have been.

A clumsy approach to management and schizophrenic hiring and firing decisions have been par for the course for years at the Trib, which has been shrinking ever since it started up with a rousing speech from the mayor in Pioneer Square, tons of hype and a large pile of money from the man who was then Oregon’s second wealthiest citizen, Robert Pamplin, Jr.

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I'm not anti-business

My first day back from a vacation week at the wind-swept Oregon coast, and I get a brutal tongue-lashing from the spokeswoman for Evraz Inc. North America.

It turns out she didn’t like my timeline detailing the dramatic transformation of Oregon Steel, from an industrial powerhouse employing thousands to a minor cog within a debt-ridden Russian empire. For starters she questioned me on my facts, which came from public records, news stories and company press releases. Then the conversation quckly turned, as such discussions often do, to motives. Before long she had suggested that I was anti-business for writing the piece.

I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-job loss. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, I give credit where it is due. But when a Russian oligarch who really likes big yachts buys a major Oregon employer and a few years later a vital player in the Portland Harbor is hanging on for dear life, I feel compelled to point out a few facts. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not the facts are relevant.

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Made in Oregon

President Obama’s new Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, is in Portland today to take a test ride on the first made-in-the-U.S.A. streetcar in 58 years. Make that Made in Oregon.

It’s part of a big brouhaha to commemorate the launch of the $75 million streetcar extension funded by the stimulus package. I have to admit I’m no fan of political pomp, but this is a ceremony with some serious substance behind it. Oregon reps tried and failed for years to get the Bush Administration to back the streetcar extension, only to lose out to the usual pile-up of highway projects. This very welcome policy reversal will create manufacturing jobs not only in Clackamas, where seven new streetcars will be built, but also at other local companies that will feed into a new regional production chain that could with luck grow into something resembling the Freightliner economy we are losing.

About a half-dozen public officials are climbing aboard for the ride, which is fitting since the deal is publicly financed. But maximum credit really should go to Chandra Brown, the hard-charging president of United Streetcar.

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Hard green questions

It’s official. The Metolius is saved — sort of. The huge uproar to block a project to turn a former clearcut into an eco-resort less than a mile from the highway has left me with some green questions.

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Score one for open-source jobs

An open source software company called Reductive Labs is coming to Portland with $2 million in venture capital and plans to create 10 jobs in the immediate future. The jobs are welcome, as is the trend behind them.

Reductive Labs specializes in open source software. Its main product, Puppet, helps organizations manage their networks. And according to Mike Rogoway’s Silicon Forest blog, the founders are a pair of Reed graduates who couldn’t wait to set up shop in Portland.

Which brings me to the trend. Portland has been hyped for some time as a Mecca of sorts for innovations with open source software, which has the advantage of releasing individuals and companies from the bonds of constantly paying for the latest Microsoft update. Most famously, Linus Torvalds, the great Linux guru, lives and works here. Oregon’s independent streak and open source software are a natural fit, and there are plenty of smart people out there passionate about putting it to work for the greater good. But for all the hype around open source and the mystique regarding Torvalds, real companies creating real jobs have been slow to develop.

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An all-time high

Strike that last blog — the one where I drank the Kool-Aid and waxed optimistic about the coming turnaround. The new unemployment numbers are out.

By now, you have no doubt heard that Oregon's jobless rate is the highest it's been since the state began stacking unemployment consistently in 1976. You may also have heard that the job losses in May weren't as bad as was expected, with surprising signs of life in construction (up 1,700 jobs over April) and leisure and hospitality (up 4,900 jobs over April). Does that mean we're on the verge of bouncing back?

Wouldn't it be pretty to think so. Construction and tourism are inherently seasonal, and summer has come to Oregon at last. It's nice to see the new hires, but how do the numbers compare to a year ago?

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Signs of life?

One of our super-talented interns is leaving us, and we hate to see her go, but I have to say I like the circumstances. She was on her second internship with us. The first time she left us because she was hired by a promising young company. Then she came back, after getting her hours drastically reduced at her new job amid fears the business would have to shut down entirely.

Turns out her company isn't going under. They're boosting her hours and expanding her responsibilities to keep up with new orders. And they aren't the only ones climbing out of the abyss. Banks are paying back their TARP loans, markets are rebounding powerfully, the clean tech sector is taking off and even Oregon's Index of Economic Indicators is showing signs of life, finally. Clean energy jobs grew by 50 percent in Oregon from 1998 to 2007. This doesn't counter the losses in timber and manufacturing, but it helps. My last six face-to-face interviews have been with two CEOs, an Intel Fellow, a consumer watchdog, and a federally appointed administrator, and not one of them mentioned the economy in ominous terms. That wouldn't have been the case a few months ago; what else was there to talk about then?

A year ago I was feeling more pessimistic than your average bear; now I've got the opposite feeling. The change might have something to do with my quest to find companies that plan to add jobs rather than subtract them over the coming year and beyond. Recent nominees include Bend's PV Powered, which scored another round of financing this week, Portland's Stalk Market, which may have solved the puzzle of the biodegradable coffee cup lid (hello? Starbucks?), the fast-growing flash video producer AngelVision and Chinese battery and car company BYD.

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The fortunate few

After spending the previous month delving into all things green, I've shifted my focus back to greenbacks, or lack thereof. More specifically, I have been analyzing the losses and gains of Oregon's most important privately held companies. The big picture, as you may have guessed, looks bleak. But there are some encouraging surprises buried in there as well.

I don't want to give away the results of our annual Private 150 survey, but since that list is ranked by revenues and this blog is devoted to jobs, allow me to tweak the results and offer some insight on who's shrinking and who's expanding.

The largest employers among the companies that participated in our survey (ranked by Oregon jobs) area: Avamere Health Systems, Jeld-Wen, Bimart, Roseburg Forest Products, Les Schwab, Harry & David, Shari's, Swanson Group, R.B. Pamplin Corp and A-dec. Not one of those businesses added jobs in 2008. Jeld-Wen, formerly Oregon's largest privately held employer, shaved 500 jobs, Ron Tonkin chopped 214. Les Schwab cut 206. Roseburg Forest Products eliminated 200. Leatherman Tool Group knifed 117. I'm running out of verbs here, so enough is enough.

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