Labor Force Participation Dips Slightly in Eastern Oregon in 2017

by Christopher Rich

August 16, 2018

Eastern Oregon’s overall labor force participation rate was almost unchanged in 2017, dipping just below the 2016 mark. The long-term trend for the region is a decrease, but the ride has been a bit of a roller coaster, as seen in the chart below. Labor force participation reached a peak (64.7%) in 2002 and then fell over the next few years, dropping to 61.1 percent in 2006. Participation reached a second peak (64.4%) in 2011 and then fell to 60.1 percent by 2014. In 2016, labor force participation was on an upward slope once again. The rate dipped 0.1 percentage point in 2017 to 61.5 percent.

Labor force participation rates slipped in 17 of Oregon’s 36 counties in 2017; the rate remained unchanged in one county and rose in 18. In Eastern Oregon, six counties (Baker, Grant, Harney, Union, and Wallowa) saw a decrease in the participation rate from the previous year while two (Morrow and Umatilla) saw an increase.
Age Plays a Big Part

The labor force participation rate is the total labor force divided by the civilian noninstitutionalized population 16 or older. The labor force is a measure that accounts for people with a job as well as those without a job who are actively seeking work. Age trends can play a key role in participation rates because the rate is relative to the size of a given population. For instance, when a person retires they are no longer counted in the labor force, however, they are still counted in the civilian noninstitutionalized population unless they become institutionalized, move out of the area, or pass away. This puts downward pressure on participation rates. Retirees moving into the area have the same effect. A vibrant and growing younger population can put upward pressure on participation rates by supplying new entrants to the labor force. On the other hand, a declining younger population adds downward pressure by removing this fresh supply of new entrants. For the majority of Eastern Oregon, this is the case. The older age population is growing while the younger age population is shrinking.

The table shows county level labor force participation rates for Eastern Oregon in 2000 as well as 2016 and 2017. Grant County had the steepest decrease in labor force participation between 2000 and 2017, falling 10 percentage points. Grant also had the steepest increase in residents over the age of 55. Whereas residents 55 or older represented 29 percent of the county’s population in 2000, they represented 50 percent of the population 2017. Results are similar for Harney and Wallowa where the 55 or older crowd grew by 15 percentage points to represent 41 percent and 46 percent of the population, respectively, in 2017. Both counties saw a steep decrease in labor force participation for the period. Baker County saw the 55 or older crowd grow 12 percentage points to represent 43 percent of the county’s population in 2017. While labor force participation fell only 2.4 percentage points for the period in Baker County, Baker’s participation rate was already at a relatively low 56.2 percent in 2000.  
Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, and Union had a share of older residents more in line with Oregon’s overall share of residents 55 or older (30%) in 2017. This age group represented 27 percent to 34 percent of the population for the four counties. The older age group is also growing in this group of four, but at a slower pace. The impact on labor force participation has been mixed, and each of the counties still maintains a relatively large younger population. Malheur saw participation increase since 2000, but decrease since 2016. Morrow and Umatilla saw a lighter drop over the long haul with participation gaining in 2017 as well as the past few years. Eastern Oregon University likely boosts the 18 to 24 year old age group in Union County. However, increased availability of financial aid may be putting downward pressure on labor force participation among students. This could be one reason that labor force participation decreased by 5.7 percentage points for Union from 2000 to 2017. 

Different Individually, Similar to the State as a Region

The data above highlights some differing trends in population and labor force participation among the individual counties. Collectively the region falls more in line with the state. As a long-term trend, labor force participation has been waning in Eastern Oregon, although the ride has been a bit bumpy. The number of residents below the age of 55 has decreased by 5 percent in the region since 2000. The number of residents 55 or older has increased by 46 percent. Overall, the older age group represented 32 percent of the region’s population in 2017 (in line with the state) and labor force participation was just 1.7 percentage points below the state rate.


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