The rest of the country is catching up to dismal Oregon

For David Cooke, a state economist, the latest freshet of unemployment numbers Ñ although ostensibly better than the last one Ñ has only reinforced the conclusion that Oregon is nowhere near recovering from the recession.

The state Employment Department, for whom Cooke works, reported Friday that Oregon's overall unemployment rate had dropped by a hair Ñ from 7.1 percent in November to 7 percent in December.

But the numbers for the manufacturing sector Ñ the main driver of the state's growth Ñ are not improving, which was particularly discouraging to Cooke.

The jobless numbers in manufacturing, he pointed out, 'were above and beyond the figures at the same time last year. The reason is that capital equipment spending nationally has still not picked up substantially, and Oregon produces a disproportionately high rate of capital and durable goods, such as semiconductors and transistor equipment.'

The declines in manufacturing and government employment were greater than what the state considers normal for the fourth quarter, he added.

Seasonal jobs in the retail industry also failed to sprout by expected numbers, he said. Employment in the sector only grew by 9,000 jobs, compared with between 13,500 and 15,600 in the previous four years. General merchandise, apparel and furniture stores saw the weakest hiring trends.

With the December jobless data now in hand, Oregon could win the dubious distinction of being the nation's leading economic basket case for 2002. Its standing won't be confirmed, however, until several other contenders post their December unemployment figures during the next week.

'Few states will end up in the upper 6 percent range; most will be clustered around (the national) 6 percent average,' Cooke said. 'So, Oregon will definitely be among the highest.'

The big-loser categories included manufacturing, which lost 4,500 jobs in December; nondurable goods (3,500 jobs, a figure that the state said erased November's significant sector gains); government employment (3,200 jobs); construction employment (1,600 jobs); and durable goods manufacturing (1,000 jobs).

The electronic equipment manufacturing sector, which includes the bellwether semiconductor category, lost 300 jobs in December.

Still, the December jobless report was not entirely bleak. It showed that fewer Oregonians were looking for work in December 2002 (121,642) than in December 2001 (134,333) and that unemployment has largely held steady, within three-tenths of a point, since May. The jobless rate reached its peak of 8 percent in January and February last year.

Finally, the number of service jobs in Oregon, a sector that includes health care and educational workers, rose by 200 in December.

One trend worth noting: The

national unemployment rate is inching closer to Oregon's. In December 2001, 7.8 percent of Oregon residents were unemployed, compared with 5.4 percent nationwide. That point spread has narrowed to 1 percentage point (7.0 in Oregon vs. 6.0 nationwide).

The state has yet to release December's local unemployment numbers. But in November, the Portland/Vancouver, Wash., figures were at 7.0 percent, just below the state's 7.1 percent figure.

Legislators recently passed measures to extend unemployment benefits for certain out-of-work residents. Most significantly, the federal Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which originally ended December 28, was extended by five months.

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