Northwest unemployment may be stabilizing — rates in Washington and Oregon leveled off in April — but the jobless rate is still above the national average, particularly in Oregon.
Yet the number of people seeking work continues to rise, even compared to a year ago. People are not abandoning the Northwest workforce and moving to regions where jobs are more plentiful. That may be good news for the region once the economy stabilizes.
Unemployment in Washington remained at 9.1 percent for the second month in a row, and Oregon's was at 12.0 percent, up from 11.9 percent in March, according to state employment agencies. The national average for April is 8.9 percent, up from 8.5 percent in March.
As the jobless rate has climbed, many states with severe losses have shed workers who went looking for better economic climates; not so in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon has 3 percent more in its workforce than a year ago, and Washington 2.5 percent more than a year ago. "I'm left scratching my head about why is that labor-force growth going up," Tom Potiowsky, Oregon government's chief economist, told The Oregonian> a month ago. "Are we going to see that level off? That's my expectation."
That leveling-off didn't happen in April. Oregon's labor force continued to increase, even before the end of school terms. And Oregon economists continue to scratch their heads, wondering why the jobless rate continues to be so high, The Oregonian reported after last week’s figures were released.
Potiowsky and others speculate that Oregon's liveability is attracting people who will move to the state — or remain in the state if a job ends — and wait for things to get better. The same speculation may apply to Washington, which has a more robust and diversified economy and also many of the same quality-of-life lures as Oregon.
"People are choosing a place to live, and then they will find employment," Portland economist Joe Cortright believes, and increasingly urban areas like Portland and Seattle will be lures for the most sought-after element in the workforce, talented and educated people in that 25-34 age cohort. "In the time between their 25th and 35th birthdays, these young adults not only start careers, but find mates, start families, and put down roots. Once rooted in place, the likelihood of their moving to another state or metropolitan area will decline precipitously."
Cortright, who is a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution and also chairs Gov. Ted Kulongoski's council of economic advisers, calls this target population "The Young and Restless," which is less a soap-opera title than a description of what he and co-author Carol Coletta found in their study of young and mobile young people.
When the economy eventually rights itself, it must deal with changes in the American workforce. Cortright points to three major workforce characteristics of the last 30 years that will either flatten out or decline in the next 20 years: Baby Boomers will retire, the percentage of women in the workforce has leveled off, and the number of college students also appears to have stabilized.
As the nation's population ages, the number of Americans age 25-34 living in metropolitan areas declined by 8 percent in the 1990s. Since 80 percent of Americans now live in what the Census Bureau defines as a metropolitan area, this is a critical demographic.
By contrast, Portland's metro area, a seven-county region including Clark County, Wash., grew its college-educated population of 25-34-year-olds by 50 percent in the 1990s, the fourth-highest growth rate in the nation, and the growth was most dramatic closest to the core city. "Young adults generally and college-educated 25 to 34 year olds in particular are disproportionately represented in close-in Portland neighborhoods — residents within three miles of the city center are 50 percent more likely to be 25 to 34 years old," Cortright reported.
Young people who locate in Portland cited quality of life as a magnet, listing "the city's size, walkability, public transportation, bike-friendliness, distinctive neighborhoods and independent businesses as contributing to a feeling of community, manageability, and safety." Cortright's study used 2000 census data with interviews collected in 2004, but he said in an interview that the trends he reported show no signs of decline five years later.
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