County remains strong in job-finding

Even as its jobless rate grows, Jackson County remains among the best small metropolitan areas in which to find employment in the nation, a new study says.

The county ranked No. 39 of 124 small metropolitan markets in the newly released "Best Performing Cities 2008, Where America's Jobs are Created and Sustained" from the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. That's down from No. 26 last year.

The study results come as the county's jobless rate continues to climb for the third straight month.

Its unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in August, up from 7 percent in July and up from 5.6 percent in August 2007. It was the highest August jobless rate since 2003's 7.7 percent figure.

Employment Department figures show there were more residents out of work in August than in March for the first time since comparable figures were instituted in 1990. An estimated 8,042 people were unemployed in August, versus 8,022 in March.

"Unemployment trends tend to spike in January, February and March," said Guy Tauer, regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department. "Summer employment is usually pretty robust, as tourism typically helps keep unemployment down, but the estimated number of unemployed people in the Jackson County labor force was slightly higher in August than March. A lot of industries normally peaking this time of year didn't have the season peak they're used to."

The burgeoning job growth earlier in the decade diminished amid slowdowns in housing and manufacturing. The weaker job growth simply hasn't kept pace with a growing work force.

Even as retail trade, health care and social assistance and public schools boosted the number of new jobs to 740 between July and August, the county's work force expanded by nearly 2,200 to 104,418, resulting in growth of the unemployment rate.

The trend is underscored by the Milken Institute study, which examines job creation over a period of time, wages and high technology jobs in the market.

Between 2002 and 2007, Jackson County exceeded the national average with a job growth rating of 107.18, 27th best among the 124 markets examined. But in the Milken Institute's back-to-back annual snapshots, local job growth slipped to No. 47 from March 2006 to March 2007 and No. 66 between March 2007 and March 2008.

One of the study's authors, research economist Armen Bedroussian, said Monday the 0.6 percent job growth still was better than the national average.

"In terms of recent job momentum, Medford looks good compared to other metros," Bedroussian said. "The common threads among the gainers and decliners is that they've been severely affected by the housing downturn and in some areas the exposure has been even bigger."

Food processing was a major component in the county's job expansion, but it hasn't overcome the decline of construction and manufacturing jobs.

The county's wage growth was above the national average from 2001 to 2006, putting it No. 33 on the list. But as the real estate market went into a tailspin, higher paying jobs went away and between 2005 and 2006, wage growth declined to No. 68.

"During that growth period, Medford was 5 percent over the national average in high-tech development," Bedroussian said. "Its share of output dropped to 37 percent below the national average."

He said the high-tech sector — a compilation of 25 industries — is a component of the study because such jobs typically reflect higher wages and attract other tech employers.

"Normally, job growth is an indicator for wages and salaries and growing wages are an indicator of quality of jobs," Bedroussian said. "With the falling wage growth, it could signal a decline of the higher-paying jobs. Obviously, the decline of construction was a factor too, because that was getting rid of some wages."

While there is uncertainty surrounding holiday hiring — Harry & David Holdings last week indicated its job growth will be flat at best — there are some areas of growth.

"It's not all gloom and doom," Tauer said.

"We had a business fair at the Expo last week and many of the 34 businesses are expanding," he said.

"MotorcycleUSA is ramping up its call center. More people are breaking out their old motorcycles and riding them again because of gas prices. Some companies are counter-cyclical. You can't use the same brush to pain the whole economy. There are winners and losers."

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