​A Humming Economy with Trouble Below the Surface

On the surface, the Portland metropolitan area's economy seems to be humming. Just under the surface, things don't look quite so rosy.

  The Portland region's economy continues to grow jobs, but full-time jobs and per capita income continue to lag other comparable metro areas.

The Portland region's economy continues to grow jobs, but full-time jobs and per capita income continue to lag other comparable metro areas.

According to the sixth annual Value of Jobs economic check-up released last week, job growth in the Portland region continues at a strong pace for the seventh consecutive year, at a rate outpacing most other peer metro regions across the nation. Portland added 35,800 jobs in the last year and now boasts 70,000 more jobs than its pre-recession peak in 2007.

However, the per capita rate of full-time jobs in the Portland region falls below the U.S. metro average and has actually declined since 2000 to only 47.9 percent of total employment.

The decline of full-time employment in Portland parallels – and may be the cause of – a troubling shrinkage of middle income households, which has serious implications for affordability in the region's hot housing market. In 1980, the study says, middle-income jobs represented 69 percent of the Portland region's total employment, but that number has fallen to 57 percent and continues to drop.

The study reaffirms Portland's outsized economic reliance on manufacturing and exports. It also points out those solid numbers rely heavily on jobs and exports associated with semiconductor manufacturing. Without Intel's output, the Portland region's manufacturing sector would be just on par with other peer metro areas. Likewise, semiconductor products represent 41 percent of the Portland region's exports.

The Value of Jobs study says the decline in the Portland region's per capita income began at least a decade before the last recession and fell below the national average as early as 2007, when the national economy peaked.

A key goal of the Oregon Business Plan is to boost per capita income, but that hasn't happened. The Portland region is now $1,821 below the $47,615 national average for metro areas. Real per capita income in Portland has only increased by $740 since 2000.

The study for the third year measured median household income, which yielded a brighter note for the Portland region. Even though median household income has remained stagnant in Portland, it still surpasses the national metro area average by $3,700. Portland checks in higher than peer metro areas such as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Sacramento, but trails Salt Lake City, Seattle and Denver, and it falls short of aspirational levels expressed by local business leaders.

As Oregon politicians and voters wrangle with a higher minimum wage, the Value of Jobs data indicates that Portland's lowest wage-earners (the bottom 20 percent) earn 19 percent more than the national average, which could be attributed to Oregon's relatively high minimum wage. It is the top end of the wage scale that lags behind other regions and pulls down the Portland region's overall per capita income.

The economic check-up is part of the Value of Jobs Campaign launched in 2010 to examine the Portland region's job market. The coalition that supports the effort includes the Portland Business Alliance, Associated Oregon Industries, Oregon Business Association, Oregon Business Council and the Port of Portland.