It was 10 years ago this month that the economic upheaval we call the Great Recession officially began in the United States.
Nationally, economists say, the recession lasted from December 2007 until June 2009, but Oregon (as is frequently the case) was late to arrive: The state started shedding jobs in March 2008 and didn't start turning the corner until February 2010. Job recovery in the months after that often was agonizingly slow. It took years for Oregon employment to return to its prerecession levels.
The mid-valley's darkest economic times during the Great Recession came in 2009: In May of that month, Linn County's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 14.9 percent, the highest level of the 21st century. Linn County endured a string of 54 consecutive months with joblessness rates in the double figures. The streak ended in January 2013, when unemployment in the county fell to 9.7 percent, but it promptly bounced up again the very next month. Only since May 2013 have unemployment rates in Linn County remained under 10 percent.
In Benton County, Oregon State University offers a measure of economic insulation. But Benton County, which often has the lowest unemployment rate in Oregon, felt the recession's pinch as well: In April 2009, the heart of the recession for Oregon, unemployment was at 8.6 percent, a far cry from the 3 or 4 percent rates the county traditionally posts.
By those measures, the economy in Oregon and the mid-valley truly has come a long way since then, a point that was underlined this week as the state Employment Department released the November numbers for individual counties: The Linn County number for November was 4.4 percent. Linn County seems certain to enjoy its lowest annual unemployment rate of the 21st century this year; the mark to beat is 5.8 percent in 2016, and every month so far this year has been under that.
The November rate in Benton County was 3.2 percent, again the lowest rate among Oregon's 36 counties. It appears that Benton County also is on track to post its lowest annual unemployment rate of the century; the mark to beat is 3.8 percent, set in 2000, and every month so far this year has bested that mark.
Some clouds dot this sunny picture: Generally speaking, the jobs that have returned to the economy after the recession have not paid as well as the ones we lost. The overall labor participation rate still troubles some economists. And not all rural areas in the state have bounced back with the same vigor as more populated areas.
Nevertheless, this could mark the best time in a generation for job-seekers. And that brings forth a batch of other job-related issues.
Even as the rate of joblessness declines, some employers face a shortage of skilled workers. Other employers say they can't find workers who can pass a drug test or have those so-called "soft skills" — showing up on time and working well with others, for example — that are essential to success in the workplace.
Some promising programs have been launched to help fill those gaps. Linn County schools have started an experiment with so-called "employability scores" that rate students on those soft skills. Not only are the scores potentially useful to employers seeking to hire, they carry an unmistakable message to students that some of the skills necessary for success in school carry over to the workplace.
The Albany Area Chamber of Commerce's Pipeline program, a collaborative effort between area schools and employers, helps familiarize students with well-paying jobs that require training but not a four-year college degree.
These efforts reflect the new reality of the mid-valley's labor market: Jobs are available. Now comes the tricky business of matching the right worker with the right job — and preparing workers for jobs that have yet to come. (mm)