Max Denning

In July, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Union County dipped to 4.8 percent -- the lowest rate the county has seen since the Oregon Employment Department began tracking unemployment in 1990.

The unemployment rates in Union County, Oregon state and in the U.S. have been dropping since the county peaked in 2009. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates in the U.S. dropped to 3.9 percent, which was mirrored in the state of Oregon.

Chris Rich, regional economist for Eastern Oregon for the Oregon Employment Department, said Union County lost roughly 550 manufacturing jobs from 2007 to 2009 during the recession. As of 2017, Union County had gained back 270 of those manufacturing jobs. Rich said while some of the remaining jobs may return to the county, some are permanently lost as manufacturers closed or left the area.

“It’s tough to say now, with the manufacturers are left, where their full employment level would be,” Rich said. “If manufacturers in the area are at full employment level or close to it, then it’s difficult for them to add any more without expansion.”

According to a report from the Oregon Employment Department, during the recession from the second quarter of 2007 to the second quarter of 2009, Oregon’s rural counties lost 27,000 private sector jobs. From the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2016, Oregon’s rural counties have gained 29,851 jobs. However, the jobs lost and gained are not at the same wage level.

Of the nearly 27,000 jobs lost, 11,374 were in higher-wage industries. Only 6,000 higher-wage jobs have been gained in rural Oregon since the recession. Of the 29,851 jobs gained since 2009, nearly 14,000 have been in lower-wage industries.

When it comes to per capita personal income, as of 2017, Union County ranked 30th of 36 counties in the state, with an average of $36,785. Wallowa County ranked 8th with an average of $43,593 in personal income and Baker County ranked 32nd with $36,412.

The Oregon Employment Department has made industry employment projections for the decade from 2017 to 2027. Overall, six Eastern Oregon counties — Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Union and Wallowa — are expected to gain 2,840 jobs from 2017 to 2027, a seven percent increase in employment. Private employment is projected to increase from 27,750 jobs to 30,150 jobs, constituting 2,400 of the 2,840 number of created jobs.

The largest percentage growth is expected in the construction industry, with 320 additional jobs by 2027, a growth of 25 percent. In manufacturing, 270 jobs are expected to be gained in the region by 2027, a 9 percent growth.

One organization trying to bring together employers and job-seekers is WorkSource Oregon, and the local Union County branch, WorkSource La Grande. WorkSource Oregon is a project of the Oregon Employment Department and is described by Deb Gargalis, area manager for Eastern Oregon for the Oregon Employment Department, as a network of private and public partners that help bridge the gap between job- seekers and employers.

WorkSource Oregon includes partners such as the Training and Employment Consortium, Blue Mountain Community College, Eastern Oregon University and Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation. These organizations help job-seekers receive guidance, training and skill-building in order to qualify for certain job openings.

WorkSource La Grande also helps employers find qualified candidates for their open positions. At times, WorkSource conducts the pre-vetting of applicants for companies.

“We talk to the employer about these various programs and what we can do for them,” Gargalis said. “Basically, what they end up with is a quality, small pool of available workers who are job ready and ready for their employment.”

Both Gargalis and Rich agreed it is currently a job-seeker’s market. This type of market, with a higher number of available jobs and a lower number of candidates, allows job-seekers to be more selective.

“(Job-seekers) are really looking for that perfect employer that matches their skills and abilities and their culture,” Gargalis said.