Jobs Watch: The phantom exodus

The Oregonian took the unusual step this morning of running a front-page business story about an unnamed executive, CEO of “a successful technology company southwest of Portland employing hundreds and boasting a bright future.”

Was he unnamed because he is participating in the witness protection program?

Hardly. He’s thinking of skipping town.

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Jobs Watch: Lessons from New Zealand

Like Oregon, New Zealand has about 4 million residents, gorgeous beaches and a large and (let’s face it) obnoxious neighbor intent on dominating the regional economy. If you think Oregonians have a bias against California, try talking to a Kiwi about Australia.

Unlike Oregon, New Zealand has a functioning health care system, a low unemployment rate and no sprawl. The Kiwis didn’t avoid recession, but they did avoid getting creamed by it. Unemployment has spiked to 7.3%, the highest rate there since 1999, but nowhere near the double-digit woes we’ve been wrestling with in Oregon.

I’m no expert on New Zealand, but I liked what I saw during my recent travels there. A lot. Here are a few lessons I’m bringing back to Oregon, for what it’s worth.

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Jobs Watch: Indie Hops grows investment

This just in from Oregon’s ever-growing beer biz: Portland-based startup Indie Hops will donate $1 million to Oregon State University to launch a new breeding program for aroma hops grown in the Willamette Valley. Add that donation to a second million-dollar Indie Hops investment to develop the first hop pellet mill in the Valley along with cold storage and distribution facilities, and you’ve got a new company that could give craft brewers the stability — and respect — that they deserve.

It is fitting that the only U.S. hop merchant dedicated entirely to aroma hops for craft breweries is based in Oregon. Oregonians have been growing first-rate hops and brewing excellent beer since statehood, but for reasons involving the corporate dominance of the Anheuser-Busch InBevs of the world, hops and beer have remained surprisingly disconnected here. Hops are grown in the Valley but processed in Yakima, Wash., where they are sold as commodities, with unpredictable and occasionally maddening price swings. The 18-month-old Indie Hops aims to improve on that inefficient system by purchasing quality hops from Valley farmers, processing them into pellets at a newly completed mill between Hubbard and Mount Angel, and selling them to brewers all over the West Coast. The mill will employ just a few people to start, but if the new local supply catches on there is huge potential for growth.

Indie Hops’ co-founders are Roger Worthington and Jim Solberg, high school football buddies from Corvallis who decided to take the start-up plunge over the course of an evening sampling the wares at the Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland. Worthington was a successful asbestos litigation attorney who was looking for a worthwhile and fun investment. Solberg was a 16-year Nike veteran who quit his job to sail the Pacific Coast in a craft he built himself and help out with a variety of start-ups including Nutcase Helmets and Hammersurf.

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Jobs Watch: Coming soon, animation jobs

Almost exactly one year ago, Laika’s first feature film, Coraline, made its world-wide debut in downtown Portland. Now comes the news that this dark but endearing work of stop-action animation has been nominated for an Academy Award, launching a small, independent Oregon studio with a 36-year-old CEO into the big-leagues with Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.

This is excellent news for Oregon’s film industry and a validation for the father-son tandem of Laika chairman Phil Knight and CEO Travis Knight. They took bold risks on Coraline, financially and artistically, and their risks are being rewarded. The film has already grossed more than $120 million (twice what it cost to make), and the publicity and gravitas of an Oscar nomination will boost sales as Coraline hits theaters in animation-crazy Japan and tackles the DVD and paid-television markets domestically.

“Five years ago when we were trying to find a partner for Coraline, nobody had heard of us,” CEO Travis Knight told me yesterday afternoon. “Obviously that changes with this nomination. This will make things easier for the business. But it also increases pressure on us creatively. We’ve set the bar high for what we’re capable of doing and we’ve got to live up to that now.”

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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.

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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.

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