If the latest employment figures are any indication, Clark County’s economy is stuck in a hole and going nowhere fast.
That sobering news comes from state economist Scott Bailey, who spoke before the Washington State Transportation Commission on Nov. 14 at the Port of Vancouver.
Bailey is the regional economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department’s Labor Market & Economic Analysis Branch covering SW Washington. At the mid-November meeting, Bailey said the official unemployment rate in Clark County is 12.7 percent (it has since dropped to 11.6 percent), compared to 9.1 percent nationally. The county’s rate lowered slightly during the year – it was 13.2 percent in January – but the drop is misleading because it only includes people who are actively looking for work.
If you add those who have given up looking or who have only found part-time jobs, the unemployment rate is closer to 20 percent.
“[The unemployment rate] has been going down the last couple of months, but that’s because people have been dropping out of the labor force and stopping their work search,” Bailey said. “Basically we have seen very little improvement at all in the unemployment department.”
Bailey reported that commuters who worked in Portland have been hit particularly hard. Construction, manufacturing, and retail are also lagging. Government hiring is slightly down, but health care is growing slowly.
Transportation Commissioner Dan O’Neal, who represents Mason County, asked Bailey why Clark County has fared more poorly than other counties like King County, where the unemployment rate is currently only 8.1 percent.
Bailey said that during the 1990s, Clark County enjoyed a rapid increase in high tech manufacturing jobs. However, during the recession of 2001, a third of those high tech jobs went away and were never really replaced by a major employer.
“We don’t have Boeing or a Microsoft,” Bailey said.
Bailey said the median household income in Clark County was more than $60,000 in 2007, but dropped to $55,000 in 2010. The percentage loss was about twice the state and national average.
Transportation Commissioner Anne Haley, a retired library director representing Walla Walla County, commented that manufacturing companies that sell globally have weathered the storm better.
“Do you see that kind of potential in Clark County?” she asked.
Bailey said Eugene-based fabricator Farwest Steel is an example of a company that is expanding to Vancouver. It expects to complete construction on a new facility at the Port of Vancouver next year.
But that level of investment is not enough.
“When you get into this kind of depression with a small ‘d’ you can’t take interest rates any lower, businesses aren’t going to invest when they don’t see a demand,” Bailey said. “And demand is not there.”
If you are unemployed, have you stopped looking for work?
What was the last straw?