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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