Jobs Watch: A bear of a labor market


It’s the holiday socializing season, and that means a lot of catching up with friends and acquaintances, no small percentage of whom are looking for work in a job market that is simply not improving. The conversation can turn complicated quickly when you ask the old standard, “What are you up to these days?”

I wish I could start a company with the people I’ve spoken to randomly over the past week or so who are struggling in their search for work. They include two top-notch copy editors, an apparel expert, a Reed College grad with a great attitude and awesome baking skills, an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights, a hot-stuff investigative reporter and a college graduate with cafe and bar experience who has yet to receive a single response for her job applications through Craigslist. OK, so this would make for a highly unusual business team. But you get the point: Oregon is packed with smart, talented people who are eager to work — if only there were jobs. No doubt you know plenty of people in similar situations.

The latest unemployment figures show that the state has lost 84,300 private sector jobs from November 2008 to November 2009. That’s a 6% decline overall, with construction jobs down 15.1%, manufacturing jobs down 14% and real estate jobs down 14.2%. Those numbers seem even worse when you think of where Oregon’s economy was a year ago. Things weren’t exactly popping then, and they’ve skidded downhill from there.

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It’s the holiday socializing season, and that means a lot of catching up with friends and acquaintances, no small percentage of whom are looking for work in a job market that is simply not improving. The conversation can turn complicated quickly when you ask the old standard, “What are you up to these days?”

I wish I could start a company with the people I’ve spoken to randomly over the past week or so who are struggling in their search for work. They include two top-notch copy editors, an apparel expert, a Reed College grad with a great attitude and awesome baking skills, an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights, a hot-stuff investigative reporter and a college graduate with cafe and bar experience who has yet to receive a single response for her job applications through Craigslist. OK, so this would make for a highly unusual business team. But you get the point: Oregon is packed with smart, talented people who are eager to work — if only there were jobs. No doubt you know plenty of people in similar situations.

The latest unemployment figures show that the state has lost 84,300 private sector jobs from November 2008 to November 2009. That’s a 6% decline overall, with construction jobs down 15.1%, manufacturing jobs down 14% and real estate jobs down 14.2%. Those numbers seem even worse when you think of where Oregon’s economy was a year ago. Things weren’t exactly popping then, and they’ve skidded downhill from there.

When this much talent is wandering around untapped, there’s a rather gaping hole in the economic recovery we are allegedly experiencing. It reminds me of the window dressing I’ve noticed in downtown Portland to make vacant spaces appear vibrant, or the “50% leased” sign on the stalled Park Avenue West building that strikes me as highly doubtful given that the newly completed 17-story building at First and Main has not attracted a single tenant.

It takes serious persistence to find decent employment in this economy. Take my friend Pete Forsyth, who was recently hired by the Wikimedia Foundation. The guy has written thousands of articles for Wikipedia over the past few years. His total compensation for that labor was zero, but he did finally work his way into a job, and he definitely earned it.

Another friend who beat the odds is my old Oregon Business colleague Abraham Hyatt. Since leaving the magazine he has reinvented himself as a digital journalism maestro, and now he’s landed an editorial position with ReadWriteWeb, a futuristic newsroom headquartered somewhere in cyberspace, where all communications are enabled by Skype.

My last example of determination in a tough economic landscape is my tennis buddy Dave Shanley, who is bootstrapping a mobile technology company called CrowdCompass with two partners out of his home in Southeast Portland. They’re working overtime without salaries and looking for Angel funding. Dave’s confident they’ll atract some. But Dave’s a confident person; you have to be to do what he is doing.

It takes guts to reinvent yourself to land a great job, or to race to fill a niche that nobody has yet filled. There’s a lot of people trying to beat the odds in Oregon these days. The more of them that succeed, the better off we’ll be in 2010 and beyond.

Ben Jacklet is the Managing Editor of Oregon Business.




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