Shoppers walk through the Old Masonic Walkway to the plaza in Ashland. - file photo

Jackson County struggling to shake off recession

Southern Oregon continues to give mixed signals on economic growth in the wake of the Great Recession.

Unemployment has trended below double-digit figures for more than a year, but the number of jobs and workforce are in decline.

"The post-recession recovery is having fits and starts here in Southern Oregon," said Guy Tauer, a regional economist for Oregon's Employment Department. "In some areas there has been year-over-year growth and now we've flattened out a bit."

Seasonally adjusted unemployment remained the same in April as in March, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating an 8.6 percent jobless rate in Jackson County. A year ago, the county's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 9.6 percent.

There were 887 fewer employees in April than a year earlier. But because there also were 1,789 fewer people in the county's labor pool compared with a year earlier, the unemployment rate stayed flat.

The short-term figures did show an uptick, with 281 more people collecting paychecks in April than in March. A main contributor to job growth in April was hiring in the tourism-related leisure and hospitality sector, which added 300 positions over the previous month and accounted for 360 more jobs than a year ago.

"It's the time of year when restaurants and hotels start hiring," Tauer said. "Especially in Ashland, because Shakespeare starts sooner than other tourism things, like river rafting and Britt."

Notably, private sector employment declined over the past year, with 280 jobs evaporating, while government agencies added 200 positions to soften the blow.

"In-migration, which fuels our population growth, has slowed," Tauer said.

Portland State University Population Research Center reports Jackson County gained an average of 2,381 newcomers between 2000 and 2010. From 2010 through 2013, however, that movement declined by more than 60 percent, to an annual rate of 916.

That slowdown hits construction directly and spins off into other sectors as well.

"Even though we're adding residents, it's not at a fast-enough pace to create demand for new housing," Tauer said.

While Oregon as a whole, particularly in the Portland metropolitan area of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, has snapped back vigorously from the throes of recession, the same can't be said for Jackson and surrounding counties.

"There are three components where there are certainly some big differences versus the Portland area," Tauer said. "There are three sectors driving the state's job growth — retail trade, business and professional services, and construction — and all those are either flat or showing losses in Jackson County. The sectors where you are seeing year-over-year growth in Portland are not showing up in Jackson County."

Tauer suggests Jackson County construction outstripped demand prior to the recession, making for a bigger hole to emerge.

"We overbuilt during the boom years, outpacing Oregon in terms of permits and construction employment," Tauer said. "There's an excess in available properties, rather than a demand to spur additional building. There are pockets of permit growth in a smattering of construction here and there."

In general, he said, employers are relying on existing staff, increasing hours for employees who hung on with them through the recession.

"We are above the bottom of the recession, but it hasn't transcended into job growth."

Manufacturing added 330 jobs in the past year, while health care and social assistance is up 100. However, the retail sector lost 420 positions, while transportation, warehousing and utilities dropped 140 positions.

The seasonally adjusted jobless rate for Josephine County remained at 9.7 percent. It was 11.2 percent a year ago.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at Edge.

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