It must seem to many people that Cowlitz County is always in the midst of an economic recovery. The recession that began in 2007 hit the community hard, but signs of recovery are evident. Historically, the local rate of unemployment runs 2% to 3% higher than the balance of the state of Washington. For many years, the local economy was singularly dependent upon natural resources and lacks the diverse employment opportunities where job loss in an individual sector can be made up in another. Jobs and income are an important determinant of health.
The Washington State Department of Employment Security tracks which occupations or jobs are being filled and where there could be opportunity for employment in the future. Cowlitz County workers have a strong reputation for hard work and work ethics, but some of the jobs today are better suited for workers with technological experience.
Many workers are eager to find and keep a family living wage job. The median hourly wage for Cowlitz County is $20.28 an hour, while the rate for the state is more than two dollars higher. If King County is excluded from the formula, then Cowlitz County compares well to the state median hourly wage of $19.57. While manufacturing and construction provide some of the highest hourly wages in the County, that sector lost the most jobs in the latest recession. By mid-2013, construction was playing a big part in the local recovery, adding several hundred jobs. One very positive sign is Cowlitz County business payrolls have expanded by 5.4% last year, compared to the State expansion of 3.3%.
In the last decade, manufacturing lost nearly 2,400 jobs. There has been a steady expansion in the past three years, adding 700 jobs for a total of 6,600 at the end of 2014. The American Community Survey estimates that 21.8% of local jobs are in educational services, healthcare and social assistance, while manufacturing at 14.6% is the second highest occupation. Male-dominated industries included construction at 81.1%, manufacturing at 79.6%, and wholesale trade at 76%. Female dominated industries include healthcare and social assistance with 83.5%, finance and insurance at 80.9%, and educational services at 74.1%.
The community and local schools are working together to develop a more technologically savvy workforce in the future. Many programs for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are being offered. The age range for these programs runs from preschool up through students in the community college. That effort could help create the workforce needed in our future.
A troubling factor with the economy is the continued high rate of poverty, especially for families with children. More than 30% of the population receives some type of state benefit, and adults are now being dropped from the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) because they have exhausted the time allowed to be on the program. While the community continues to recover lost jobs, the overall civilian labor force has shrunk. In February 2012, the Civilian Labor Force in Cowlitz County was 43,690 with a total employment of 38,890. Unemployment ran at 4,800 with a rate of 11%. For the same period in 2014, the Civilian Labor Force dropped to a total of 41,400 workers, with 37,720 employed, and 3,680 unemployed, for a rate of 8.9%. A similar reduction has been seen with the state’s labor force. This could be the culmination of workers retiring or simply giving up looking for work.
In the current economy, younger workers are still struggling to recover from job loss. Teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 30% and jobs held by 19 to 20-year-olds dropped by 20% during the past recession. Older workers continue to dominate the labor force with 23.5% of the jobs held by those age 55 and over. Only 12.8% of local jobs were held by workers under 25 years of age, according to Scott Bailey, Regional Labor Economist for the Employment Security Department.
The local median household income estimated for 2014 was $45,403, lower than the state rate of $55,686. This trend goes back at least 25 years. By comparison, few counties exceed the state rate. Those that do are Benton, King, Kitsap, Snohomish, and Spokane. By excluding these counties Cowlitz County then ranks seventh for median household income.
Poverty, however, continues to be a major burden for families, especially those with children. The 2009-2013 American Community Survey, 5-year Estimates finds that 12.4% of Cowlitz County families live in poverty, compared to 9% for Washington State. For families with related children under 18 years of age, the rate jumps to 22.3% and tops out at 34.5% for families with related children under five years only. Being a single female head of household carries a number of stigmas, but in particular is the rate of poverty. For all families with a female head of household and no husband present, 40.5% are living in poverty. For those with children under 18 years the rate jumps to 51%, and if there are only children five and under in the household, the rate is 64.1%. This is significantly higher than the state rate of 48%. The county has the unfortunate position of being in fourth for the number of children living in single-parent households at 37%. Poverty and household status creates barriers to determinants of health.
The rate of unemployment and poverty alone give the community a larger pool of potential workforce. Lower Columbia College and local school districts collaborate on career and vocational education programs which help youth be job ready after graduation. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center, for several years, has offered a youth mentorship program that gives at risk youth an opportunity to learn jobs in the hospital while remaining in school. The students are required to save one third of their wages, which is kept by the hospital, and then matched for scholarships for these youths to continue their education. While the program is successful, it can only reach a modest number of students each year. This model has been embraced by the Community Health Improvement Planning steering committee that is working to encourage other employers and funders to support a mentorship model.
Business leaders remain optimistic on new and expanding job opportunities in the County. In the past year, Three Rivers Mall has seen the addition of a multiplex theater, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and a nationally known fitness center. On a larger scale, the Port of Kalama is preparing for development of a natural gas processing and exporting plant, which will add $1.8 billion in capital investment, construction and jobs. The Port is also moving to create a larger business park. In doing so, it is also building the Haydu Park for the community which will feature an expo center, ball fields and tennis courts.
Revitalization of downtown economies is also underway. The City of Castle rock has completed the redevelopment of their streets and business district, making it not only more attractive for customers, but also attracting new businesses. The City of Longview has been aggressively promoting the downtown business core with the first phase of its streetscape projects, which improves pedestrian access and safety, and will continue development of an additional section later this year. Businesses in downtown Longview has reenergized and reorganized as the Longview Downtown Partnership is developing promotions and events to strengthen the economy in the business sector. The City of Kalama has benefited from the work of Envision Kalama for downtown beautification. Woodland and Kelso continue to provide family oriented community events such as the Planters Day and the Highlanders Festival. A growing event is a marathon held in Woodland which serves as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. This will continue to grow and bring more tourists and business to the local community.
The challenge for local leaders will be to match the available workforce with the new jobs being created in Cowlitz County. The community has already benefited from the collaborative work for economic development led by the Cowlitz EDC, Cowlitz County Commissioners, ports, and cities. A bright economic future can remove a number of barriers to health.
- Support local businesses by shopping at local businesses
- Practice debt management and asset building
- Support volunteer efforts for job training and basic skills
- Continue efforts of Cowlitz EDC to implement quality of place
- Encourage businesses to hire local workers
- Provide internships and training positions in local businesses for students
- Include basic employment skills training in career development training programs
- Work with employers to allow employees to attend college classes during work hours
- Encourage public/private investments in community development projects
- Encourage expansion of business and recreation opportunities with Mt. St. Helens
- Create more living wage jobs
- Promote state business incentives and tax exemption
- Fund STEM (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills training in local schools
- Support efforts to build and maintain affordable housing
- Ensure collaboration between colleges and schools to offer vocational training programs
- Limit expansion of check cashing/quick loan businesses