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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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Tax breaks for new jobs

I've gotten some nice feedback on my first draft of a top 10 list of Oregon businesses that are hiring and expanding. The biggest response: Hey, put us on the list. We're doing just fine.

That was the message from Portland Energy Conservation, which has 23 job openings in the red-hot field of green building and energy efficiency. This company even has a bounty hunter program that pays $1,000 for successful referrals for hard-to-fill positions such as refrigeration engineers. Who needs rock stars when you have refrigeration engineers?

I also heard from a marketing company out of Bend called G5 Search Marketing that has tripled its employee count since the end of 2007, from 15 to 45. My contact there, Devin Davis, made a strong argument that there is light at the end of the tunnel in Bend, despite its embarrassing position near the top of the list for the nation's highest unemployment rates in metro areas. He reeled off a quick list of companies that are poised to take off there, including GL Suite, Rocketbux and PV Powered.

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Who's hot and hiring

With Oregon's unemployment rate hovering at 12%, we all know who is cutting back: pretty much everyone. So who's hiring? Who is going to pull us out of this mess?

We at the magazine are constantly on the prowl for gems of optimism buried beneath the refuse of our state economy. We've found some great quirky success stories: landfills, urban chickens, guns and foreclosures, to name a few.

But quirk will only take you so far. Where are the Oregon companies that will create jobs over the next year? What follows is a first draft of a top 10 list. If I'm missing anyone big or hyping someone unrealistically, call me on it.

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