Facing Oregon’s inconvenient truth

Oregon’s unemployment rate is reported as 11.1 percent, but economists believe it would be much worse if the underemployed and the discouraged worker were taken into account.

Oregon’s unemployment rate is reported as 11.1 percent, but economists believe it would be much worse if the underemployed and the discouraged worker were taken into account.

Underemployment is a term used to describe three situations where a person is employed but is overqualified for a low-wage job that doesn’t require those skills, forced to take a part-time position when full-time work is desired or is not fully utilized by their company year-round. A discouraged worker is someone who is out of the workforce and has given up on seeking employment, choosing instead to live off of family members or savings and not file for unemployment.

A more accurate report looks at underutilization, which accounts for both unemployment and underemployment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports Oregon’s underutilization rate at 20.1 percent, making us second only to Michigan. Economist Andrew Sum told the Portland Tribune that if the amount of discouraged workers were combined with our underutilization rate, Oregon would be at 24 percent, the worst in the nation.
There is another problem according to Dr. Ira S. Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a pre-employment testing firm.

“While many people are unemployed and underemployed, the numbers belie a real story—unemployable. Many of the jobs lost or changed during the recession are permanently gone.”
The BLS seems to confirm this. Skills-based industries have taken the hardest hit in Oregon where mining, logging and manufacturing are down around 15 percent each. Those workers are currently searching for new careers, since jobs in their industry are fading fast.

Recent college graduates make up much of the underemployed. While we may have the technical training to get jobs in our field, we lack experience. Two- and four-year degrees are becoming job requirements now in a market that is flooded with highly qualified applicants. Universities are gradually making the shift from institutions of higher learning to job preparation sites. The underemployment rate shows that the paradigm shift is not coming quickly enough. High school and college students need more internship opportunities in order to be taken seriously after graduation.

As an English undergraduate, I spent four years working in my university’s mailroom when I should have been working as a teacher’s aide or mentor. How many students take jobs as baristas or in retail because paid internships are impossible to come by? Experience, more than our degrees, will dictate the jobs we will receive immediately after graduation.

The record-high enrollment at Oregon’s universities and colleges shows where people turn for career training. This adds another dangerous figure to the underutilization rate. Students are not considered available for work, which means that many of those discouraged workers or unemployed who decided to go back to school are not included in underemployment statistics. The unprecedented amount of students attending Oregon’s public universities and community colleges means that the supposedly lowered jobless rate in Oregon could see a huge boom in two to four years.

So, what’s wrong with the Oregon worker? I thought the general consensus stood that we are intelligent, creative and highly skilled with a penchant for eco-friendly industry. Federal tax breaks for businesses that decide to go green have created thousands of new jobs for out-of-work Oregonians. Responsible job creation will be the key to leading us out of this recession. If jobs are disappearing and industries are rapidly changing, new industries will have to sprout up to absorb the swelling unemployment pool.

The Portland City Council has proposed a 10-year plan to create 10,000 jobs. While it’s a step in the right direction, a decade is a silly amount of time to set a time-sensitive goal.

People need jobs now. Without a sales tax, Oregon is dependent on income tax revenue. If people don’t have jobs, they can’t pay taxes to fund education, public transportation and health services. Funding for unemployed students hoping to be retrained at community colleges has already been cut. In 10 years time, those 10,000 jobs will barely make a dent in our unemployment rate.

I realize this is a bleak picture, but it’s a truth we all need to face.