Skip to comments.Loggers displaced in 1990s left behind, study finds
Posted on 01/08/2003 12:19:47 PM PST by Harley109
One of the great unknowns following the collapse of Northwest timber cutting through the 1990s was what happened to thousands of loggers, sawmill workers and others who lost their jobs.
Researchers mining a decade's worth of obscure state employment records have unearthed an answer, and it's not pretty:
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More than half the 60,000 workers who held jobs in the wood products industry at the start of the 1990s had left it by 1998. And almost half of those who left disappeared from work rolls altogether -- probably moving to another state, retiring or going unemployed.
Roughly 18,000 of the workers who left the field found a job in Oregon. But of them, nearly half took jobs in service and retail businesses -- such as restaurants and department stores -- ending up with lower wages, on average, than they had earned almost 10 years before.
Viewing the job shifts by region, researchers found that about a third of those who lost jobs in rural Southwest and Eastern Oregon did find work at higher wages -- but only after moving to the urban northwest part of the state.
The findings counter suggestions by some antilogging activists that the Northwest's high-tech boom offset logging losses with hardly a hiccup. While the regional economy as a whole grew to record levels of income and employment through the 1990s, those who made their living from timber were largely left behind.
"They did not seem to share in the great bounty of the '90s," said Ted Helvoigt, a former state economist who now works for ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm. "More ended up in the lower paid service industry than anywhere else."
Helvoigt co-authored the study using state employment records to track thousands of timber workers over the past decade, when debates over the northern spotted owl and other protected species all but shut down logging on federal lands. The study may be the first major effort to watch how environmentally driven economic changes affect individual workers.
It also was authored by economists at Oregon State University and the Oregon Employment Department. Publication is expected later this year, in the Journal of Forestry.
Wildlife protections did not eliminate all the jobs, however. Others disappeared because of increasingly computerized sawmills and the depressed timber market.
"We all need to appreciate that it's been a rough go for those in the timber industry," said Mitch Friedman of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "These are important people and important jobs, but that shouldn't drive harmful logging practices."
He criticized the Bush administration for fashioning itself a friend of rural America while cutting funds for communities adjusting to declines in natural resource industries such as logging.
Overlooked database Economists have long pondered how Oregon's timber work force handled erosion of its foundation. But it was not until Helvoigt alerted them to a long-overlooked state database that they could fill in the blanks.
The database, collected as part of the state unemployment insurance program, allowed researchers to track individual workers by their social security numbers. It detailed their job, location and salary histories from 1989 to 1998. Their names and personal details remained confidential.
The researchers counted about 60,000 people working in the wood products sector at the beginning of the 1990s.
By 1998, 42 percent were still employed in wood products. They tended to be the more highly skilled, better paid workers. About a third, usually lower paid workers, shifted to another industry -- mainly service and retail trade, but also construction, manufacturing and transportation. About 450, or 2.5 percent of those who went into another line of work, joined the roaring high-tech industry.
Just less than a third were gone from the records, meaning they either retired, left the state, or were unemployed or self-employed. They also may have formed the core of "a cadre of chronically underemployed rural residents," the study concluded.
"We can't prove it, but most of them had to have left the state," said Darius Adams, a co-author and professor of forest resources at Oregon State University.
Salary trends When it comes to salary, the trend was down.
Those who left the timber industry for other jobs saw their median earnings decline an average of 1 percent from 1990 to 1998, while those who stayed saw 6 percent increases. The roughly 4,200 who ended up in the service industry had the lowest earnings of all, with fewer benefits such as health insurance.
The figures pale against the 23 percent increase the average Oregon worker enjoyed during the same period.
"People did find employment, but it wasn't quite as rosy as it might have seemed," Adams said.
More than 60 percent of those who left the timber industry in sparsely populated Southwest and Eastern Oregon stayed in those parts of the state, hit hardest by the drop-off in logging on federal lands. Most of the rest moved to more rapidly growing Northwest Oregon and ended up with median salaries 29 percent higher -- $24,413 versus $18,967 -- than those who stayed behind.
Newcomers moving into the Northwest for well-paying jobs in the technology industry fueled much of the economic growth in the 1990s, Helvoigt said.
The study's results illustrate the risks of viewing the regional economy so broadly that the hardships of individual workers escape notice.
"When you look at actual individuals, you see that people were affected," Helvoigt said. "When you look at the averages, you miss the impacts on individuals."
Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; firstname.lastname@example.org
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