Central Oregon saw a slight increase in employment last year. But the region continues to fight an uphill battle to create jobs.
Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties added about 420 jobs in 2012, new data from the Oregon Employment Department show. That beats the net gain of 100 jobs in 2011 but doesn't really begin to offset the more than 9,000 jobs lost in the region between 2008 and 2010. In Deschutes County, however, several industries posted solid upticks in 2012. Employment based around tourism and health care rose past prerecession levels. In Crook and Jefferson counties, growth came almost entirely from government jobs.
But this year could be a little better.
Especially in Bend, several hotels, restaurants and medical providers said they're hiring in 2013, banking on new business. “The summer peak season definitely came back strong" in 2012, said Wayne Purcell, co-owner of The Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center in Bend.
Monthly bookings at the convention center increased about 20 percent in the latter part of 2012, compared with 2011, Purcell said.
Now he needs two new cooks, a restaurant maintenance worker, convention services manager and assistant front office manager to keep up.
The picture isn't entirely rosy: The past few years have been the hardest Purcell has seen in 28 years in Bend's hotel industry. But he said 2012 was the best year for The Riverhouse since the crash. “It's a slow-growth environment. We're not back to the level of business we were at in 2007," he said, “but I think to some degree we are kind of moving in the right direction."
Deschutes County posted an annual average of 8,270 workers in the accommodation and food services industries last year, an all-time high, state data show. The figure reflects the average number of jobs in that industry each month.
In Bend, some restaurant owners said they're eyeing 2013 for expansions.
Restaurant owner Carole DeRose will nearly double the workforce at La Rosa when it opens its second location in southwest Bend in about two weeks.
The Mexican restaurant in Bend's NorthWest Crossing neighborhood has averaged about 17 employees over the last few years. It's at 23 today and could go as high as 43 when the new location is running at full speed.
The expansion “was something we were looking at quite a while ago, before the downturn in the economy," DeRose said.
She started feeling more confident about the business last year and picked up the expansion plan. Other Bend restaurants that have moved or plan to move into new and bigger spaces include Pho Viet & Cafe, Togo's, Croutons, Mother's Juice Cafe and Baldy's Barbeque.
When tourists come, retailers, hotels and restaurants reap the rewards.
Lodging tax revenue in Bend was up about 7 percent in the latter months of 2012, compared with 2011, according to the city's tourism agency, Visit Bend.
Service businesses have clearly benefited,said Damon Runberg, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department.
“Specifically in Bend, the increase wasn't all that surprising," Runberg said. “The summer of 2012 was probably one of the strongest summer tourism seasons ever."
They're lower-wage jobs than most other sectors — the average accommodation and food services worker earned about half the average annual wage in Deschutes County in 2011, the most recent year U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data is available.
But some higher-skilled fields are seeing growth, too.
The average of 9,520 educational and health services jobs in 2012 was down slightly from 2011. But before that it had increased each of the last 10 years.
Companies like Bend Memorial Clinic have ramped up staffing. A U.S. Labor Department report issued last year projected health care to be the fastest-growing industry nationwide between 2010 and 2020, powered by an aging baby boomer population and provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.
BMC has upped its workforce from about 564 workers in 2011 to 602 today, said Chief Marketing Officer Christy McLeod.
The clinic is looking to add 15 more employees, from new physicians and mammography technicians to accounting positions.
“With health care reform happening right now, nationally and in the state of Oregon, that's definitely had an impact on our hiring," McLeod said.
Health care is booming. Tourism is picking up.
But a big part of Central Oregon's economy is struggling to find solid footing — despite some positive signs recently.
Construction and manufacturing jobs are at a fraction of their prerecession levels. Deschutes County's 7,040 jobs in manufacturing, construction, logging and mining last year was less than half of its 2006 peak of 14,460 workers.
Many local building companies “have found ways to be more efficient with their time and resources during the downturn," said Andy High, vice president of government affairs for the Central Oregon Builders Association.
Homebuilding in Bend appears to have jumped up from the bottom: The city issued 452 permits for new single-family homes last year, up from 256 in 2011 and 186 in 2010. There were 676 permits issued in 2007.
So homebuilders and subcontractors may be fielding more jobs today than in recent years, High said, but they're still staffing for a depressed market.
When Bend's building market collapsed in 2008, some companies left the area for hotter markets, High said, like the Tri-Cities region in southeastern Washington.
Federal labor statistics listed about 850 construction-related companies operating in Deschutes County through June, covering everything from the largest general contracting firms to smaller companies like cabinet makers and electricians. The prerecession high was 1,484 in early 2007.
The companies that survived the crash “aren't hiring as quick as they were in 2006," High said. But he sees glimmers of improvement.
Early enrollment of builders for COBA's spring Home and Garden Show is up about 30 percent from last year. A slight boost in Bend home prices, and declining inventory, could fuel an uptick this year — though the outlook is far from certain.
“I definitely think you see that people are cautiously optimistic" about 2013, he said.