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State job growth weakest for middle wage occupations


However Crook County shows stronger middle wage job gains

by: JASON CHANEY - Job growth is improving for manufacturing facilities, such as Woodgrain Millworks, that pay middle-wage incomes.

As the economy recovers in Oregon and work continues to boost employment, people looking for work now face a lagging family-wage job market.

Josh Lehner, with Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis recently released a report on job polarization, a phenomenon where job growth is concentrated in higher-wage employment ($55,000 or more per year) and low-wage professions ($25,000 or less annually).

Lehner noted that the trend has varied in Oregon throughout the past 30 years, but the recent recession has created a greater divide.

“Employment growth during and after the Great Recession has exacerbated the job polarization trends and nearly all job growth in the past two years has been either high or low wage,” Lehner said in his report.

From 2010 to 2012, high-wage jobs have increased about 7 percent and low wage jobs nearly 6 percent. Meanwhile, middle-wage jobs ($25,000 to $55,000) have increased about 1 percent.

Lehner went on to point out that most of the high-wage job gains occurred in metropolitan areas, while rural communities have faced a loss in middle-wage jobs coupled with an increase in low-wage occupations.

Despite the job polarizations trends, Crook County appears to have bucked the trend. From August 2012 to August 2013, job growth has increased more in middle and high-wage professions than in low-wage jobs.

Damon Runberg, Central Oregon’s regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said that during the yearlong timeframe, high-wage jobs in the information and education/health services industries have grown by 40 and 16.3 percent respectively. Conversely, low-wage industries like hospitality/leisure and retail have only increased 3.2 percent and 0 percent.

“The one difference I would say that we have seen . . . was we saw pretty strong growth in manufacturing,” Runberg said. “Traditionally, those manufacturing jobs fall into that middle (wage) sector. They pay great living wages.”

During the same yearlong timeframe, Crook County has seen an 8.7 percent increase in construction jobs and a 10.7 percent bump in wood products manufacturing.

For local economic development leaders, the recent increase in middle-wage jobs fits right in with their strategies for job recruitment.

“Our goal is family-wage jobs,” said Crook County Economic Development Manager Russ Deboodt. “People with those jobs are buying houses and spending money in the community. That is always our focus.”

While the current job environment looks better locally than throughout the state overall, Crook County still faces challenges. First of all, they still maintain the second-highest unemployment rate in Oregon (12.6 percent as of August 2013). Secondly, Runberg expressed concerns that compensation for middle and low-wage could lag behind the rate of inflation, making it more difficult for people to make ends meet.

However, given the struggles Crook County faced during the recession, any job growth looks good right now, whether it’s polarized or not.

“I suppose at this point, we are not going to complain too much,” Runberg said.