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Study: Oregon sees shifting employment landscape

Oct 25, 2013


By The Associated Press

PORTLAND — New research shows the number of middle-class jobs in Oregon is shrinking rapidly, while high-wage jobs and low-wage jobs are growing — and at a faster pace than those in the rest of the nation.

In Oregon, middle-class jobs were the hardest hit during recent economic downturns and have been the slowest to recover, according to a study released this week by Oregon's Office of Economic Analysis.

In 1980, such middle-wage occupations represented 67.6 percent of all Oregon jobs. Three decades later, the share has fallen to 59.8 percent.

During that contraction, there have been gains at opposite ends of the pay scale, a trend known as job polarization. It has been shaping the U.S. labor market for three decades, but the Great Recession exacerbated the process.

Polarization means work is gradually shifting away from the types of factory, repair and office jobs that typically fall in the middle of the pay scale, with annual wages between $25,000 and $50,000.

And while most people still hold such middle class jobs, experts predict job polarization will continue for years.

The trend is largely driven by technology — the use of computers, software or automated assembly lines — which allows workers to be more productive and allows companies to employ fewer of them.

Another factor is globalization, which leads to routine jobs being performed overseas.

Much of the polarization in Oregon occurred because its relatively large manufacturing firms downsized. The dotcom bust and the Great Recession led to middle-class job loss.

Middle class jobs made up 88 percent of the 137,000 jobs lost between 2008 and 2010 in the state — most of them in construction, production and administrative support occupations.

Low-wage jobs and higher-paid occupations rebounded faster after the recession.

More than half of the 40,000 jobs recovered between 2010 and 2012 were among occupations paying more than $50,000, according to the report.

The state's high-paying job base expanded by about 7 percent during the two years after the recession, compared with about 5 percent growth nationwide.

And 15,000 of the jobs recovered after the recession were those that pay less than $25,000.

In fact, Oregon's workforce is more polarized than that in some other states because of a large concentration of low-paid farming, forestry and fishing jobs — work that cannot be replaced by machines.

The biggest challenge when it comes to job polarization, according to the report's author, Josh Lehner, is to ensure that workers who lost middle class jobs are able to shift into other well-paid occupations — instead of unemployment or low-wage jobs.

People with additional education, training and technology skills are those who can benefit most from expanding high-wage jobs, Lehner said.

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