Rural Oregon is experiencing declines in labor force participation

In a recent report released by Oregon Employment Department, Oregon as a whole has been suffering a decrease in labor force participation (LFP) during the past four years.

It’s not news to anyone that one of the main reasons for the decline is due to the glut of baby-boomers who are retiring. The recession has also hit the people hard, leaving many unemployed across the nation, however, county-by-county rural area labor forces are some of the hardest hit.

Nick Beleiciks, Oregon Employment Economist, explained one reason why the labor force in rural areas is declining more than metropolitan areas.

“It’s a general trend over the last couple of decades for younger people to move away from rural areas to the city areas.”

This leaves a rural community like Prineville with fewer young people working or seeking work.

Russ Deboodt, Economic Development Manager for Prineville and Crook County, explained further.

“Smaller communities — that definitely applies to rural Oregon — definitely see an export of talent. What I mean by that is young kids leave our community to go to college, get degrees, and never come back to our communities. So we get this outflow of talent or possible future workforce.

“That goes back to a lot of smaller communities have a history of not having a lot of jobs that require those degrees or are highly technical — things like that,” he said.

Conversely, larger metropolitan cities have more people flowing into them because they offer more jobs and more diverse opportunities.

Although this exodus from rural communities is nothing new, there are some things that can be done to reverse the effect.

“One of the things he and the Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO) are focusing on is how to recreate those opportunities in our communities to draw those college and trade school graduates back to Prineville.

“I think one of the biggest things that Prineville now has is the OSU/COCC (Oregon State University/Central Oregon Community College) Open Campus here,” Deboodt said.

“And of course, when the data centers came into the region, no one in the workforce really had the skills to go ahead and get a job at those facilities, but through partnerships between Facebook, and the county, and the Open Campus, they were able to create training so that we could train Prineville and Crook County residents for those positions,” he added.

“So, now with new industries like those coming in, there’s opportunity for kids to go to school to get a degree in IT and come back and fill positions in our community,” said Deboodt.

He said that even some of our wood products companies are having trouble filling positions that are more technical and require higher skills.

It is left to be seen whether or not more of Crook County’s youth will return to the workforce after college, but Damon Runberg, Central Oregon’s Regional Economist, thinks that the recession also plays a large role in the declining rural Oregon job force.

Many workers of all ages and skill levels in Crook and other Central Oregon counties are leaving to find work in other states — states like North Dakota that have more work than they have people to fill the positions.

“It is definitely the recession that has affected rural counties particularly badly,” Runberg said. “It’s a trend that has been happening across the nation, though. When you break it down to Crook County, Jefferson County, Deschutes County and what’s going on there, it’s clear that the impact of the recession is a big driver of this.

“That obviously is the big driver when you’re talking about discouraged workers — someone who is no longer counted in the labor force because they gave up looking. Well, you don’t give up looking for work unless the economy is so bad that you don’t perceive jobs are available.”

He said that you can’t really consider the declining LFP as good or bad, because there are good reasons for the decline, such as retirement or going to college, and there are bad reasons, such as the recession. It simply is what it is.

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