Most agree that recovery from the Great Recession has been a slow slog around the region. Still, the area has long been known as a center for creativity and innovation, with world-class cultural, natural and agricultural resources. As the economic base continues to shift, the need for high-quality jobs that pay a living wage remains a primary concern for residents of all ages, incomes and education levels. College students, parents and many others say a lack of job opportunities is causing young people and working-age families to leave. But sectors that are currently showing potential for growth, such as creative industries, entrepreneurship, and food- and agriculture-related industries, may hold promise for attracting and sustaining vibrant local communities.
Mixed News on Jobs and Unemployment
While job growth in the region since 2010 has been positive at 3.3%, it has been weaker than the U.S. average of 9%. Even Columbia County, with the highest growth at just under 7%, still lags the nation.
And overall job growth has not fully offset job losses from the recession or previous decades of substantial economic restructuring. The unemployment rate ranged from 2.0% to 21.5% in the region’s towns and cities between 2012 and 2016. About 70% had rates higher than the national rate of 7.4%.
The measure that shows the active portion of an economy’s workforce, the labor force participation rate, ranged from 50% to as high as 75%. But nearly half of towns fell below the national rate of 64%.
From Producing Goods to Providing Services
Long dominated by manufacturing and agriculture, the economy today is driven by jobs in health care and social assistance (15% of jobs), government (12%), retail trade (11%), and accommodation and food services (8%).
Industries that saw the most job growth between 2010 and 2015 include wholesale trade, accommodation and food services, and health care and social assistance, along with manufacturing and construction. The region also has high levels of self-employment. The highest average annual earnings for industries with at least 1,000 jobs were in finance, insurance and manufacturing ($70,000 and above), and government (from $55,000 to the low $60s).
Looked at against the nation as a whole, industries with higher than average concentrations of employment here include arts, entertainment and recreation; educational services; crop and animal production; health care and social assistance; construction; retail trade; and accommodation and food services.
Tourism on the Rise
In 2015, tourists spent a total of nearly $1.5 billion in the region’s four counties, and data suggest that tourism dollars are growing. While tourism directly supports at least 20,000 jobs within the four counties and there is some diversity of opportunities in the sector, many tourism jobs pay lower wages in an area where the cost of living is a concern for many. The increase in housing units devoted to seasonal or recreational use in part reflects the growing influence of tourism in the region.
A Thriving Creative Industry
The abundant cultural activities and organizations in the region are a major draw for tourists and residents alike. They also play a crucial role in the economy. The number of arts- and culture-focused nonprofits of all sizes—some 200 in total by one estimate—is remarkable considering the relatively small population.
Along with nonprofits, the mix of arts-related businesses and self-employed workers form a powerful engine for the creative economy. Employment in this sector—creating goods or services with artistic and cultural content and value in the marketplace—accounts for 6.2% of total jobs, or about 9,000 jobs. That is substantially higher than the national average of 3.9%.
Decreasing Farmland, Expanding Food-Related Jobs
Well over 1,000 farms dot the landscape, covering over 200,000 acres of farmland. They range in size from less than 10 to more than 1,000 acres.
But even as farming contributes to local economies and shapes regional identity, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture has declined—by an estimated 15% between 1997 to 2012.
At the same time, the number of jobs in food industries—production, processing, distribution, restaurants and retail—rose to 17,500, or 12.3% of all jobs, as of 2015. Employment in this area has grown by 7.8% since 2010, more than twice overall job growth.