IMAGE: Thomas Martinez
On a Friday afternoon last year, an event that not long ago would have been hailed as a catastrophe passed almost unnoticed.
Pope Talbot, the local timber company that once employed thousands of workers, closed its doors for good. More than 180 workers were left jobless.
The 160-year-old company was once a giant in an industry that provided generations of Portlanders with steady paychecks. Two decades ago, its demise would have been greeted with the same panic that the failure of Nike or Intel would incite today.
Yet in 2008, the story earned all of seven paragraphs in the Saturday Oregonian.
That moment captured the enormous transformations that have reshaped Portland’s job market in the past 35 years—a rocky road from an economy based on loggers to one that’s better characterized today by marginally employed bloggers.
And it’s a journey that still hasn’t reached a satisfying conclusion.
Since this newspaper was founded in 1974, the Portland metro area has doubled in population to 2.2 million people. It’s also nearly doubled its unemployment rate—from 6.2 percent then to 11.5 percent today.
The reason? The timber industry went into a death spiral in the early 1980s, and other sectors have failed to grow or evolve to take its place as the bedrock of the local job market.
A lot of Portlanders assume that high-tech manufacturing and software design in Washington County’s Silicon Forest—featuring Intel, Tektronix and Sun Microsystems—has taken on the timber industry’s role of providing dependable, high-paying jobs to the region.
But a look at the numbers shows that high tech has hardly become the stable anchor of the local job market. Instead, the industry has backslid since its peak in 2001, surging through the ’90s and then taking a nosedive from which it still hasn’t managed to recover.
The high-tech sector today, including manufacturing and software design, employs around 45,500 Portlanders. That’s down from the high point of more than 54,000 in 2001.
But the most troubling number may be this: While population has continued to grow steadily, we still have the same number of jobs here that we had in 2000—about 845,000.
“If the Portland metro economy can’t create a job for nine years straight, something has to change,” says Christian Kaylor, a workforce analyst for the Oregon Employment Department. “I think whatever comes, it’s going to be a painful transition.”
It’s already been a wrenching path since 1974 to arrive where we are today.
Thirty-five years ago, Portland’s job market was running on all cylinders. Oregon had created 264,000 jobs since 1964—a 45 percent increase in 10 years. A national housing boom in the last half of the 1970s meant even better times ahead for the state, which was the nation’s No. 1 supplier of plywood at the time.
Out-of-date rural mills processed old-growth Douglas fir as fast as their blades could spin, and Portland-based managers counted the money coming in. Then nationwide inflation, which the feds fought with high interest rates, pushed the country into a deep recession starting in 1979. The housing boom collapsed, and the Northwest lost more than 10 percent of its regional economy.
Recovery didn’t come until the latter half of the 1980s. In Portland, growth in the high-tech sector and at sports apparel companies like Nike and Columbia Sportswear finally started making up for some of the jobs lost when the timber giants fell.
Then in the 1990s, high-tech manufacturing surged to become the dominant industry in the state, led by a boom in the Silicon Forest. The change transformed the face of the city as the number of college-educated residents grew by 50 percent that decade.
“The real flowering of that tech sector happened during the lifetime of Willamette Week, ” says Portland economist Joe Cortright. “There were literally hundreds of businesses created in that industry, most of them local startups.”
But the dot-com crash of 2001 dealt the industry a blow from which it never fully recovered. Today, twice as many Portlanders work in restaurants and bars as in high-tech manufacturing.
Since then, a stream of swamis has flowed into town claiming to see the future of Portland’s job market. First it was biotech. Then nanotech. Now it’s sustainable energy and green building.
“Every year—and you can set your watch by it—some economic consultant comes to Portland and says they know what the next big thing is,” Kaylor says. “It became kind of a joke.”
So far, none of those predictions has created the kind of jobs Big Timber once provided. Still, Cortright remains upbeat.
“We’ve transformed from this provincial, resource-based economy to one that is much more vibrant,” he says. “We’ve shown we can reinvent ourselves. To me, that’s the key indicator of whether you’re going to do well in the economy going forward.”
Let’s hope so.