Twenty Below: Oregon Counties and the Pre-Recession Peak

Twenty Below: Oregon Counties and the Pre-Recession Peak

by David Cooke and Christopher Rich

January 10, 2017

Two key indicators of full recovery from an economic recession are a return to peak employment and a historically low unemployment rate. At the end of 2014, Oregon as a whole surpassed its pre-recession peak of 1,737,900 nonfarm jobs that was last seen in early 2008. Rapid job growth in 2015 and 2016 took the state beyond pre-recession highs into new territory; in November 2016 the state had 1,850,000 nonfarm jobs. The state’s unemployment rate took longer to fully recover, as it dropped to its pre-recession low of 5 percent by early 2016. Among Oregon’s individual counties however, recovery and growth remain varied.

Dip in the Trough

Unemployment rates have fallen in all 36 Oregon counties since the recession. Most counties either dipped below or tied their seasonally adjusted pre-recession trough in 2016. Those that have not fallen below their previous low point, currently have low unemployment rates when compared with historical trends. Four of these counties (Columbia, Curry, Deschutes, and Klamath) came within 0.1 percentage point of their pre-recession trough in 2016. Malheur County was 0.2 percentage point from its pre-recession low. Wallowa County was separated from its previous low point by just 0.5 percentage point and Union County by 0.6 percentage point. Baker, Crook, Gilliam, and Jefferson ranged from 0.9 percentage point to 1.7 percentage points above their pre-recession low points in 2016.  

View of the Peak

With unemployment troughs on one side of the recovery coin, employment peaks are on the other. Sixteen Oregon counties were above their pre-recession employment peak in 2016, which left 20 counties still below. Among those above peak employment, Morrow County had the largest percent change post-recession. Morrow stood out from the pack, at 40.1 percent (+1,330 jobs) above its pre-recession peak in 2016. Sherman County was second at 14.7 percent (+110 jobs) above peak, while Washington County was third at 12.0 percent (+30,200 jobs) above peak.   

The accompanying map shows that most counties in Northwest Oregon are above their pre-recession peak employment, while most counties in Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon have not yet regained their previous high mark in terms of total nonfarm jobs. The areas of the state that are well above their pre-recession job totals include the regions encompassing the cities of Portland, Salem, Corvallis and Bend, as well as the northern coastal counties and the majority of the mid-Columbia Gorge counties.

Among counties that remained below peak employment in 2016, Gilliam was the lowest in terms of percentages. Gilliam County remained 20.9 percent below its peak, a drop of roughly 200 jobs from its pre-recession high. Gilliam saw the largest portion of this decrease occur from 2012 to 2014. Second on the list was Crook County, which in 2016 was 20.5 percent below its peak. Crook County saw a large drop from 2008 to 2010, losing roughly 1,500 jobs for the period. Grant County was third at 16.3 percent below peak in 2016. Grant experienced a long, steady decrease in employment from 2005 to 2013, losing 520 jobs.

Half of all counties still below peak employment (mostly those from 7.4 to 20.9 percent below peak) remained relatively flat in terms of job growth since decreases leveled off. The other half (mostly those from 0.7 to 5.9 percent below peak) have seen an upward trend develop over the past few years.

It should be noted that two counties were very near their pre-recession peak in 2016. Lane County remained 0.7 percent below its pre-recession peak. However, job growth was rapid during the past four years, with nearly 15,000 jobs added. Jackson County was 0.1 percent above its pre-recession peak in 2016, adding roughly 9,700 jobs since the beginning of 2012.

Note on the Method

Since employers generally add workers during economic expansion and release workers during a recession, peak employment is often thought of graphically; as the highest point before the downward trend. Economically speaking however, peak employment can occur when the graphic trend is flat or even decreasing. This is because the trend of growth in the overall economy (national, state, and neighboring counties) can help support workers at the county level who otherwise would have been laid off, even if the county isn’t adding jobs.

Most Oregon counties that added workers prior to the recession saw a graphic peak between 2005 and 2008, though the exact month and year varied by county. For this analysis, peak employment for each county was pegged as the highest level of employment from 2005 to 2008. Analysis of peak employment for each county was done using a twelve-month rolling average to remove the volatility of seasonal swings and highlight the overall trend in employment.