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Our Opinion: Jobs report rosy, but there's work to do

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If you weren’t yet feeling that holiday cheer, here’s something to boost your spirits: The Portland-area economy is showing verifiable signs of sustained growth.

Two bits of evidence emerged in recent days to document the economic progress being made in this region. On Wednesday, Dec. 17, the Value of Jobs Coalition released the latest in a series of five reports tracking trends in the local economy over the past few years. In some respects, this report was the rosiest of the bunch, showing the metro area’s economy adding jobs at a quickened pace.

The other piece of good news came on Dec. 16 from the Oregon Employment Department, which reported the state’s economy added 11,200 jobs in November. That number far exceeded any previous month in 2014 and brought the state’s total employment to 1,740,800 — the highest level ever.

The accelerated growth in employment has many positive side effects for public funding of programs such as K-12 education and health and human services. Oregon depends on income taxes to pay for government services. As more people return to work, more money becomes available for schools, colleges, health care, environmental protection and the like.

More jobs, but less pay

If the total number of jobs being created in the Portland area was the only statistic that mattered, we would say this region is on the right track, and should just do more of the same. But in addition to the positive news it contains, the Value of Jobs report also reveals ongoing economic weaknesses. In the past four years, the Portland area has added back more jobs than it lost during the Great Recession, but wages have not caught up to their previous levels.

In fact, the report shows the median household income in the Portland area is $4,408 lower per year now than it was before the recession. This report — sponsored by the Portland Business Alliance, the Port of Portland and other business groups — also notes that Portland residents’ salaries provide them less buying power than their peers in other medium-size cities. In other words, the cost of housing and other goods and services in the Portland metro area makes local residents’ salaries seem even lower in comparison to places such as Seattle, Salt Lake City and Denver.

As Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, says: “Jobs have come back, but incomes lag.” She further laments that our region is in danger of losing its middle class.

Strive for the right jobs

To attract high-paying jobs, the Portland area must recognize that community wealth — or in this case, regional wealth — is best encouraged when companies create products here that can be sold elsewhere. These so-called traded-sector industries bring dollars into the region, rather than recirculating money that’s already here.

Traded-sector businesses can be as large as Intel, but also can include many specialized shops that make unique products for export outside the region. They support other businesses, as well, as they use local suppliers for everything from making their parts to providing their coffee service.

So what’s needed to attract more of these types of businesses and to promote creativity and entrepreneurship, in general? The list is a familiar one:

• Better career and technical training in our schools and colleges.

• Stronger connections between training programs and the workplace.

• More engineering degrees, and fewer history majors (not that there’s anything wrong with them).

• Available land for industrial development, so the region can land large employers that in turn support family-wage jobs and help smaller businesses in the community.

• Investment in roads and other forms of transportation so businesses can move their products and employees can be productive.

Business and community leaders, as well as public officials, are working on all of the items on the above list. But part of the solution is a matter of attitude. Are Portland-area residents worried about stagnating or declining wages, and are they willing to support initiatives that can help reverse the trend?

In part, this means treating businesses large and small as a benefit, not a detriment, to the community. On that score, there’s lot’s of work left to be done. But sometimes — especially this time of year — it’s also important to recognize signs of success. The latest jobs reports show positive momentum quite worthy of celebration.