Employment up ahead of tourist season

More Jackson County workers found jobs in April as leisure, hospitality and schools beefed up their payrolls. The unemployment rate declined to 7.1 percent in April, dropping from 7.7 percent in March.

Even so, the Employment Division jobless figures released Monday remain higher than April 2007's 5.5 percent rate. Job growth is substantially slower than it was in the middle of the decade, with the 470 additional jobs filled last month reflecting a .5 percent growth rate.

The underlying good news, said Regional Economist Guy Tauer, is that the slowdown largely remains confined to the housing, real estate and finance sectors.

The flight of skilled labor and professional talent from the Rogue Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s reflected a bust in the wood products industry and was exacerbated by high interest rates.

"What we experienced in the early 1980s was much more broad-based," Tauer said. "In our area, the labor force and population are still growing; we're still attracting people."

He said state employment economists have speculated that Oregon's unemployment rate — presently 5.5 percent — will likely rise because of sluggish job growth while the state's population increases.

In April, leisure and hospitality added 230 jobs locally, 160 of those in accommodations and food services.

"Companies have to ramp up for summer season. They can't wait and see if people will come and then do their hiring," Tauer said. "They have to hire and train beginning now."

Workers in tourist-related roles may see reduced hours and fewer shifts as their employers reduce expenses without sacrificing the number of employees.

"They have to plan for both scenarios," Tauer said of employers in the hospitality trade. "If things go along normally, they have to handle the inflow of tourists. Maybe gas prices will mean people are traveling less. If so, it will definitely impact workers' pocketbooks."

That could ripple into retail activity, where for the first time since March 2007 retail trade employment declined, falling 160 positions.

"Higher consumer prices, higher gas prices and the slower sectors of the economy have pinched retail trade," Tauer said.

Federal government figures show motor vehicle and parts dealers sales have declined 7.3 percent; furniture and home furnishing stores have experienced a 5.1 drop; department stores sales receded 2.3 percent; and building material and garden equipment and supply dealer sales are off 2 percent.

"Those are national figures, but we're going to be seeing some of that here, too," Tauer said.

The residential housing malaise has contributed to a loss of 170 construction jobs over the past year, but public sector construction and commercial projects continue to fuel construction.

"Some clients are holding back, but all the primary larger contractors here have decent backlogs and that speaks for itself," said Mark VonHolle, vice president at S&B James Construction Management. "We are at the front edge of the baby boomers retiring and the Rogue Valley is consistently on the Top 10 lists for the best retirement communities in the nation. The retirement industry in and of itself spawns additional economic development and business opportunity via housing, assisted care, health care, all manner of services, retail and so on."

During the past 12 months, professional and business services picked up 250 jobs, health care and social assistance notched a gain of 330 positions and leisure and hospitality is up by 140.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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