A Peek at Private Employment’s Twin Peaks

A Peek at Private Employment’s Twin Peaks

by Christopher Rich

October 18, 2016

The Great Recession (2007 to 2009) brought swaths of unemployment and left lingering economic hardships in its wake. Eastern Oregon counties (Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa) saw loss of jobs in many private industries as people tightened pocket books and consumer demand decreased. The recession officially ended in 2009 and since then unemployment rates have fallen in all Eastern Oregon counties. Some counties in the region are currently seeing unemployment rates at historical lows. Seven years after the economic contraction however, much concern is still placed on recovery. A common benchmark for recovery is a return to pre-recession peak employment. For Eastern Oregon, the trail of recovery and comparison to pre-recession peak private employment begins in 1990.

Private employment was climbing in Eastern Oregon in the 1990s. Employment in private industry ascended from an annual average of 39,638 in 1990 to reach a peak of 48,018 in 1999; an increase of 21.1 percent. Over the next few years, private employment descended along a light slope and then rested at 46,450 in 2005. Housing bubble inflation between 2005 and 2007 helped private employment summit the next peak of 48,174. This 2007 peak was just 0.3 percent above the 1999 peak. The bubble burst at the end of 2007 and by 2009 employment had slipped to 45,444; 2.2 percent below the 2005 mark. Since then, Eastern Oregon's private industry has found its footing. Based on a twelve month rolling average, Eastern Oregon private employment has now climbed higher than both of the region's pre-recession twin peaks.

A three-piece analysis of Eastern Oregon's pre and post-recession private employment reveals distinctive trends. Morrow and Umatilla are two counties which sometimes skew studies of the region's economy. Morrow County has experienced exceptional growth in manufacturing since 2006 while Umatilla County accounts for roughly 42.0 percent of total employment in Eastern Oregon. When analyzed as a sub-region, Morrow and Umatilla saw pre-recession peak private employment occur in 2002. Combined private employment for Morrow and Umatilla grew 35.8 percent from 1990 until the peak of 2002. The two-county area saw an overall decline in private employment from 2002 to 2005 and then from 2005 to 2007, it saw only a 2.2 percent increase. The post peak low came in 2009, but combined private employment for the counties currently sits above the 2002 peak; 38.9 percent above where it was in 1990.

Baker, Malheur, Union, and Wallowa counties each saw private employment spike during the same two-year time period (2005 to 2007). For these four counties as a sub-region, pre-recession peak private employment occurred in 2007 at the height of the spike. Private employment grew 12.3 percent from 1990 to 2000 for the four-county area. From 2000 to 2005, employment remained relatively stagnant yet slightly below the 2000 mark. From 2005 to 2007, private employment bucked the trend of stagnation and spiked by 6.2 percent. This spike was driven by the housing bubble which puffed up employment in construction, retail trade, transportation, and manufacturing. After the 2007 bubble peak, employment fell again to match the 2003 level by 2009. While private employment for the area has not recovered to the 2007 peak, employment currently sits above the 2000 pre-spike peak; 15.0 percent above where it was in 1990.  

As a sub-region, Grant and Harney counties saw private employment peak in 1999. The 1999 peak was actually a brief interlude in an overall downward trend. Prior to 1999, private employment was declining in both counties. Grant County saw a slight uptick from 1993 to 1996, but by 2000 private employment was again below the 1993 level. Harney County saw a major spike from 1996 to 1999, but by 2001 private employment crashed below the 1996 level. The 1999 peak was driven by Harney County's manufacturing industry, which in turn boosted retail trade and construction employment. The drop from peak private employment was driven by a loss of manufacturing employment which matched the previous gain. Apart from the 1999 spike, private employment for the two-county area has been in decline since at least 1990. Private employment is currently 30.2 percent below the 1999 peak; 25.6 percent below where it was in 1990.