Slight uptick in unemployment expected in 2019
Crook County enjoyed a banner year in 2018 as far as unemployment numbers are concerned.
During the summer months, the county followed a state trend of approaching record-low unemployment rates that bottomed out at 5.4 percent.
The same is not expected for 2019. The local unemployment rate began to rise in slight increments this past fall, and that trend is likely to continue throughout the coming year.
"I think we are going to see a slight increase going forward," said Damon Runberg, Central Oregon's regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department.
While that is the case, the modest uptick is not any cause for concern. Runberg points out that the change is not the result of any major layoff event, but rather a change in recent hiring trends.
"For the most part, 2019 is going to be a much slower growth year for the region as a whole," he said. "I don't think that means job losses. It just means that our businesses are dramatically slowing down their hiring."
For the past year or so, businesses had actually struggled to find qualified workers to fill job openings. Runberg points out that most of the qualified workers in Central Oregon have a job, so businesses have struggled to mine the small pool of unemployed people to fill positions. While Runberg believes that will continue, he said the demand is not as high.
"I think we are seeing it become a little more difficult for entrants to find work," he said. "There is a little lag between when you enter the labor force and when you find that job."
Though the unemployment rate is expected to climb this year, Runberg said it will probably reach and stay in the 6 percent range in 2019, which is still really low for Crook County. He points out that the normal unemployment low for Crook County is 6 percent, so "the fact that we made it under the 6-percent threshold to begin with was pretty impressive."
Industries poised for a strong year include the professional sector, which includes businesses that specialize in security services, landscaping or others that support businesses.
"It has shown a lot of really positive signs in 2018," Runberg remarked.
Meanwhile, the data center expansions and work on solar facilities in Prineville figure to boost construction employment, although the employment data may not tell the full story.
"Those are some weird industries," Runberg said. "They bring in a lot of workers, but a lot of them are transient workers in the sense that they might not live in Crook County full time."
He explains that the data center and solar farm work is specialized enough that the construction companies hired to complete the work are based outside of Crook County. So even though there are many construction workers in town, it doesn't often boost local job data.
"It is always good to remember that employment is counted where the businesses cut the paycheck," Runberg notes. "If you have a specialty construction company that is building a data center or a solar plant, the employment is being counted where the business is located, not where the project is being built."
The same situation occurs with residential construction because some of the larger developers building in Crook County are utilizing companies based in Deschutes County. Runberg noted that the same situation occurs in the Portland metro area where Multnomah County gets credited with more of the construction jobs.
"The smaller counties get the short end of the stick because the businesses tend to be located in employment hub counties," he said. "I think we are dramatically under-counting the number of people working in construction in Crook County."
Perhaps one measure of how data center and solar farm construction is impacting Crook County can be found in the tourism industry, which Runberg said is doing well locally.
"It has been weirdly sustained by these out-of-town workers," he remarked, adding that some true tourism growth is likely a contributing factor.
The unemployment rate for November was 5.8 percent. The Oregon Employment Department will release unemployment data for December on Tuesday, Jan. 22.