Is this really a time of 'full employment'?
Washington County has reached an era of "full employment" — at or near 3 percent unemployment.
For academics, the term "full employment" can mean everyone who wants a job has one.
For employers, the term means they have difficulty filling open jobs.
And for people who are unemployed or "underemployed," the term has no meaning whatsoever.
If you're out of work, who cares what term other people are using?
Despite layoff notices at SolarWorld, SureID, Nike and other area businesses, Washington County officials have said they don't expect the county's unemployment rate to dip much, because laid-off employees will likely land on their feet before too long.
For some, that might means looking outside the county.
Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin took a job at a hops farm in Woodburn after Intel laid him off in 2015 when his department shrunk from about 20 people to six.
Much of Dalin's work at Intel was very specific to that company, working primarily with the corporation's tools. So when the engineer started searching for a new job, he quickly realized whatever he found wouldn't be very similar to his Intel work. "A lot of what I had been doing was very specialized," he said. "But I found skills to adapt to a smaller company," including project management and leading small groups.
Dalin knows a lot of people who've been laid off from Intel or who've accepted a financial deal to move on. "Not everybody is doing the same thing they were doing before," Dalin has noticed.
But several laid-off employees from Intel are still searching for work two years after they were let go.
Intel laid off hundreds of employees in 2015, followed by another round in 2016. Many of those have found jobs, while others were forced to leave the state to find work, according to The Eliminati, a group of former Intel employees who help their laid-off comrades find work.
Kip Silverman, 51, worked in Intel's Information Technology department for 15 years before he was let go in 2015.
Silverman said he hasn't been able to find a job for more than a few months at a time.
"I've been struggling basically just to get by," he said. "I hadn't really planned on ever leaving Intel."
Silervan was forced to liquidate his 401(k) in order to keep his head above water.
"I'm flat broke at 52, and that's not where I expected to be," he said.
Former Intel employee "Debbie" — who asked we not use her real name — was laid off in 2015 and worries that if people know her identity, she'd lose the job she has now, and will have trouble finding work in the future.
"It's about paying the bills now," she said. "It's depressing. It was like going through a divorce."
Debbie spent 25 years at Intel as a management trainer, but now cleans houses under the table and found work at a local company making the bare minimum she needs to stay in her home.
"I had to take a job that totally changes my lifestyle," she said.
Defining the issue
Emily Starbuck is an economist and workforce analyst for Washington County. She doesn't use the term "full employment" — not yet, anyway, because the county hasn't seen wages increase yet, she explained.
"We're starting to see more wage growth, but it hasn't happened like we would have expected it to in 'full employment,'" she said.
Full employment also can trigger inflationary pressures. But that, too, is missing in Washington County's economy.
While unemployment is low, "underemployment" is a different story. That's the term for people who are working part-time but who want full-time jobs, or are working multiple part-time jobs, or who are working for much lower salaries than they are used to.
Underemployment is "fuzzy" and hard to track, Starbuck added. There's no one place, for instance, to gauge all of the college graduates working low-paying retail gigs. Underemployment is tracked statewide and isn't broken out county-by-county.
Despite those caveats, Starbuck said the gap between the unemployed and the underemployed is shrinking. During the height of the recession, when Oregon's unemployment rate hit 11.3 percent, the underemployment or "labor underutilization" rate was about 9.4 percent higher, or 20.7 percent, meaning in 2009, one in five Oregonians was without a job or underemployed.
Today, the statewide unemployment rate is 3.7 percent and the labor underutilization rate is 8 percent — only a 4.3 percent gap.
Economists tend to hedge the words. But Jonathan Schlueter, government relations manager for Washington County, doesn't have that same worry. "With little attention or public fanfare, workers in Washington County are actively employed at levels not seen locally since 1995," he wrote last week in a press release.
Back then, Schlueter noted, Washington County had about one-third fewer residents back than than it does today.
According to Washington County officials, public and private-sector employers have been actively hiring, adding 4,800 new jobs to local payrolls since May 2016. That has led to particularly strong growth in construction, transportation, warehousing and utilities sectors, with 1,100 new jobs being added to those categories in the past 12 months.
An additional 1,000 jobs were filled in professional and business service occupations, which helped offset a sharp reduction of 1,500 jobs lost in Semiconductor and electronic component manufacturing during the same period.
Despite the recent and threatened layoffs being reported by several prominent local employers, including Nike and SolarWorld, manufacturing employment in Washington County has rebounded to 49,000 active positions in May. That matches recent highs, recorded in May 2016, and approaches the county's record levels of 49,100 manufacturing jobs recorded in August and September 2006.
Finding ways to help
Ken Dodge, workforce development director for Portland Community College, works at the school's Willow Creek center in Beaverton. He said the facility was "jammed" during the Great Recession, with lines out the door.
Today, that's not the case.
Around 2009, Washington County's unemployment rate hovered at or above 10 percent. It has steadily decreased to at or below 3 percent. That means fewer federal dollars are being allocated today for the unemployed.
Dodge says for many people looking for work now, it's not that their industry has fled or their company folded — which did happen during the last recession — many have been laid off or quit and are now struggling to find suitable work.
"We're seeing people who worked 20 years in an industry, and now they don't, and they can't just go back," Dodge said. "These are clients who had a certain wage and (benefits). And that's what they want."
The problem, of course, is that 3 percent unemployment means family-wage jobs are tougher to find.
"We know we could just hand out any old job. Go to any Plaid Pantry and you'll find a 'help wanted' sign," Dodge said. "That's a good job. But it's not a wage to raise a family with."
Silverman, the former Intel employee, said that many of the laid-off Intel employees made more money there than they would at a new job. That's often enough incentive for employers to look for other people, he said.
"They want somebody that's excited about the lower-paying job, someone who wants to get their foot in the door."
Although they might be qualified for the work, Debbie said, they can't land an interview.
"You just hear crickets," she said. "Applying for a job nowadays is so different than it was before."
Silverman took a year to develop a nonprofit group called MoveFood, which works with restaurants to provide leftover food to shelters and people in need.
"I'd rather do something meaningful, if I can," he said.
Hereford worked in banking and loved it. But when banks looked like they might falter during the recession, she got switched to the job of collecting overdue payments, a job she hated. She did it for three years, then called it quits.
"At my age, I'm not looking for a career anymore," she said. "For me, benefits are a big deal."
Meanwhile, "Joe" is looking for answers. He stopped working in January, the first time since his teens that he has not been employed. He had a steady, longtime technical career in the healthcare industry, where he worked as a manager. He has a home here, and children and grandchildren. His wife is willing to get a job "to make ends meet," he said, but she hasn't worked for 40 years. Joe isn't sanguine about either of their chances.
Joe saw a position open up in San Francisco, which made him somewhat hopeful — another in Boise. But both would require leaving their children and grandchildren behind.
"I have no shame in being unemployed. Really, I don't. It's just..." Joe paused, looking for the right words. "This is all just brand-new to me."
He stopped and gathered himself.
"We'll likely have to sell our home and … I don't know," he admitted. "Travel a while, maybe."
Programs to help
Sonia Limon is an employment supervisor for Worksource Portland Metro. She works with Ken Dodge at Willow Creek.
It's tough, with such a historically low unemployment rate, to find high-paying jobs for their clients. But if they fail, it's not for lack of trying.
Dodge fills a whiteboard at the Beaverton office with an alphabet soup of acronyms and programs: ABAWD, JOBS, ReBoot, Health Careers Northwest, CPT, OJT — the list goes on. Each is a state or federal program that addresses one slim slice of the employment sector.
"We have programs for people," Limon said. "We're here to help. We have great training programs. But the truth is, people walk in the door and say, 'I need a job yesterday.'"
Worksource Portland Metro also works with a wide array of partners: vocational rehabilitation and mental health organizations, food banks, homeless shelters and more.
Gayle Armstrong serves as a coach for ReBoot Northwest, a pilot program for unemployed and underemployed people in Oregon, but with an emphasis on veterans. Armstrong said her program focuses on the long-term unemployed in the tech sector.
"After a few months of not working, employers look at the gap in the resume and start thinking, 'Hmm … what's going on here?'" Armstrong said.
ReBoot offers an "upgrade" of workers' skills: partly because many workers need new skills, but also partly to fill those gaps in the resume. There's no gap if you can write in "retraining," the thinking goes.
Armstrong helps clients modernize their skills and knowledge in software and electrical engineering, computer support, network administration and electronics manufacturing, among others. She has 130 people in the ReBoot program right now — all getting, well, "rebooted."
"It's amazing the path people took to get here," Armstrong said. Some got laid off. Some quit. Some started their own companies, only to see the economy change under them and their companies fold.
Nancy Alvarado oversees a team at a Worksource facility in Tualatin, and echoed what Armstrong said. Her site sees about 150 people per week. And the paths that her clients have taken are far too varied to fit into any one category. Some come out of — and seek a path back into — the medical, high-tech, manufacturing or retail fields. But her staff also sees people who worked in every field.
"It's a service economy. It's a knowledge-based economy," Alvarado said. "And sometimes those jobs just aren't easy to find."