NEED A JOB? EOU, manufacturing help Union County
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
Among the huge array of statistics kept by the Oregon Employment Department, an especially bright one keeps popping up for Union County.
Unemployment here is low.
In its latest report, for October, the Oregon Employment Department reported a 4.8 percent jobless rate.
That's up from the September rate of 4.3 percent, but still well below the rate for the state and the nation.
It is the second best unemployment rate in all of Oregon, behind the Benton County/Corvallis area, a district that reported a 3.4 percent rate for October.
Jason Yohannan, the Oregon Employment Department's Eastern Oregon regional economist, said a number of factors have combined in recent years to paint the favorable local picture. Growth at Eastern Oregon University stands near the top of the list, Yohannan said.
"Even though there was a drop this year, enrollment at the university has been growing strongly," Yohannan said.
Yohannan noted that an expanding student body leads to jobs not only at the university, but in the community at large.
"When you have more students, you need more staff," he said. "But growth like that also generates a demand for housing, pizza, movie tickets, and the like."
The university employs 380 benefited people, said Darlene Capshaw of the school's Human Resources office.
That number does not include students employed part-time by the school.
The employment department estimates there are about 800 people working locally in state education, counting university students.
Nearly 900 more are employed in local education, and a small number have private-sector education jobs.
The construction industry also has been a major contributor to the county's economic well-being, Yohannan said.
Construction projects at the university, coupled with state and local highway projects, has bolstered the employment numbers, not only in the construction trades but in the service sector as well.
"When you've got crews staying in town, it means increased business for motels and restaurants," Yohannan commented.
Yet another reason for Union County's low unemployment rate is a fairly healthy manufacturing sector, Yohannan said. He noted that the local recreational vehicle industry has seen tremendous growth in recent times.
"We've seen an upturn in manufacturing growth, especially in the travel trailer industry. There's an ongoing high demand for those (outdoor recreational) products," Yohannan said.
In its October report, the department said that 1,400 people are currently working in Union County's manufacturing sector. There are three recreational vehicle manufacturers in Union County, including Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Oregon, Nash Industries and Intermountain RV.
Fleetwood , located on Pierce Road, employs 250 people. Likely the company will add more staff next year, according to spokesman Terry Fischer.
"We have not been able to build enough product," Fischer said. "Interest rates are at an all-time low and people want to get out and do things."
Fischer said rapid growth occurred at Fleetwood in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
"Anything to do with outdoor recreation has grown since 9/11," said Fischer. "It's not just travel trailers, but also motor homes, motorcycles, ATVs.
"People are staying closer to home. They're taking their vacations in places just a couple of days away from where they live. They'd rather do that than deal with airport security."
Oregon's total unemployment rate, a seasonally adjusted 7.6 percent, remains the highest in the nation.
Yohannan said population figures have something to do with why La Grande's rate is so much lower.
"People still come to Oregon to live, even when the markets are weak," he said. "But Union County hasn't had to accommodate the kind of population growth other areas have. The population here is flat-to-slow-growing," he said.
Overall, wages earned in Union County don't measure up to averages for the state or the nation, but they're the best in Northeast Oregon, Yohannan noted.
"As a general rule, wages are lower than average, but they're higher than in neighboring counties," he said.
Statistics compiled by the department showed Union County workers brought home an average of $26,033 in 2002. Workers in Baker County averaged $24,916, and in Wallowa County $25,669.
In Oregon, the average wage was $33,685, and in the United States it was $36,744.
Though all of the above is good news for Union County residents, Yohannan cautioned that the local economy isn't performing as well this year as it has in the recent past.
"I wouldn't want your readers to get the impression that 2003 is turning out to be a good year," he said. "That's not the case. When all the statistics are in, we'll see that employment numbers are down from 2002."
If that turns out to be the case, it will mark the first time in 11 years the county hasn't posted employment gains, Yohannan said.