Underemployment a problem on the High Desert

One in three jobs in Central Oregon in leisure and hospitality

Underemployment problem in Central Oregon

BEND, Ore. - Forget the spa, a shopping trip or a vacation -- a Redmond woman blew out the birthday candles with a gift to herself she hopes will give her a leg up: a new college degree.

"I'm now going on to my master's degree through Walden University with a master's in project management," Jamie Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson graduated from OSU-Cascades a few years ago with a bachelor's of science in fine art.

She said she switched majors several times while attending college, and had a tough time finding a well-paying job in Central Oregon once she graduated.

She started working in banking, and now works at a property management company, doing vacation rentals.

At 32, Johnson said she's underemployed -- doing a job that doesn't require a degree.

"I feel these days, a bachelor's degree is just like a high school diploma," Johnson said.  "It's not as sought after, because everyone has one."

Part of Johnson's job is in the tourism industry, and Central Oregon Workforce Analyst Kim Thompson said there are plenty of educated people in her shoes.

"About one in three jobs (in Central Oregon) is in the tourism, retail, or leisure and hospitality industry -- that's big," Thompson said.

Thompson said the High Desert has the highest percentage of tourism jobs of all metro areas in the state. In Portland, it's about one in five jobs; Eugene has about one in four.

"Manufacturing, construction, retail, leisure and hospitality -- these are things we do well over here, but also jobs you can get right out of high school without a lot of education," Thompson said. "It's great for your economy, but it does create an underemployment situation."

Thompson said about 14 percent of the U.S. workforce is either unemployed or underemployed. That number is nearly 16 percent in Oregon.

She noted that both the nation and Oregon are still recovering from the recession.

"(What we are seeing with jobs is) exactly what a buildup after a recession would look like," Thompson said. "You would get jobs that are lower-paying. Tose kinds of jobs come first, and build a pyramid to higher-paying jobs in the same industry."

When you look at employment postings, you might see a lot of low-paying jobs, but Thompson said that doesn't mean the high-wage jobs aren't out there.

She said about 80 percent of job openings never hit a job board; the ones that do make it are usually low-pay and high-turnover.

Thompson said networking is the most powerful tool for job placement, but education also helps.

Johnson said she's confident with her new degree, she'll land the job she loves, making the money she deserves.

"I want to be like everyone else and own a house and the car," Johnson said.  "I want to wear the business suit every day."

Johnson said after she finishes her master's degree, she'll be about $130,000 in debt -- but she says it's the price she'll pay to become more hirable.

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