Full employment? Some observations from those seeking work
Washington County has seen its unemployment rate fall, fall, fall since 2009, the height of the Great Recession. It went from right around 10 percent to 3 percent today.
That's remarkable. You have to go back to the tech boom of the 1990s to find an unemployment rate so low. Some economists refer to this level as "full employment."
The improvement also has been true for the state of Oregon as a whole, although Washington County has led the way in the recovery.
Despite that, many of our fellow Oregonians remain unemployed or "underemployed" — the person working part-time but wanting a full-time job; the person holding down two part-time jobs; the person trained in a high-paying career who can only find work well below their logical wage range; etc.
That's a significant proportion of Oregonians. When statewide unemployment was at 11.3 percent, in 2008, the "labor underutilization" figure (unemployed plus underemployed) sat at 20.7 percent; more than one in five Oregonians.
In April, the unemployment rate was at a remarkable 3.7 percent, but the combined rate was 8 percent.
In short: Many of our fellow Washington County residents can't find a job, or can't find the right job, during this time of "full employment" (See story, Page A1).
Pamplin Media Group reporters spoke to people seeking work, and also those who help people find work. Among the observations we walked away with:
• Classical economics tells us that, when unemployment falls this low, wages rise and so does inflation. But we're not seeing either of those trends yet. We've spoken to several economists who have trouble explaining this.
• There is help to be had at Worksource Portland Metro locations, including in Beaverton and Tualatin. People who want to refresh their résumés, or scan websites for help-wanted ads, or get refresher training, can find whatever they need. They have programs fined tuned to dozens of specific sectors of the economy. And the people who run the centers have only one complaint: Not enough people know they exist.
• The economic woes today are radically different from those of 2008-10. During the Great Recession, whole companies were folding and entire sectors of the economy were wobbling. Today, the root causes leading to unemployment and underemployment tend to differ person by person — we spoke to people who quit or got laid off, or who are looking for short-term work. That differs from the recession, when high tech companies were doling out pink slips to entire shifts.
• Employers are having trouble filling jobs. We spoke to several employers for an April 3 story, who said they cannot find enough candidates even for low-paying jobs. (Again, that should translate into wage hikes across the region, a factor that is missing in this recovery.)
• Nationwide, the Democrats managed to lose the White House and failed to grab either chamber of Congress despite an estimated 80 straight weeks of job growth under President Barack Obama. That was the longest sustained period of job growth in recent U.S. history, and yet the other team still managed to have a better message on jobs heading into the 2016 election.
Democrats have never been known as monuments to clear communication ("I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat," quoth Will Rogers nearly a century ago). But even by their standards, this boggles the mind.
• But perhaps part of the answer to that bullet point can be found in this bullet point: During Obama's first term in office, the aftermath of the Great Recession was referred to as a "jobless recovery." It was. This has been one of the longest, slowest periods of recovery in modern American history.
To illustrate, Oregon went from right around 4 percent unemployment to 10 percent unemployment between 2007 and 2009 — a two-year period. But it's taken us nine years to to get from 10 percent to 3 percent. Like a playground slide, the ramp-up to the recession looks like a steep ladder and the recovery looks like a long, gentle slope.
Well … "gentle," if you're not among the unemployed and underemployed.