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Picking up steam

Throughout the lengthy recovery from the Great Recession, University of Oregon economist Tim Duy has frequently noted the growing gap between the Portland metropolitan area and the rest of us.

In recent years, Eugene-Springfield and Central Oregon (primarily Bend) joined the party to a lesser degree. Even Salem has had its moments. Now, at last, it appears the Rogue Valley is making headway, according to the latest U of O Regional Economic Indexes, released Wednesday.

"We've seen the civilian labor force numbers improving in recent months," Duy said. "I've seen this in several areas across the state, and I see it as a sign the recovery has hit a new phase."

The August 2014 data, reflective of much of the year, show that the Rogue Valley was outgained only by Portland. Thanks in no small part to a growing civilian labor force, the Rogue Valley jumped to its highest employment level since 2007.

Between March and August, the county's labor force grew to 97,070 from 96,322, reversing a trend of people retiring and leaving the labor market.

"The region’s labor force has grown during the past two months, breaking a long downtrend and possibly signaling that growth is accelerating," Duy said. "The economy has been sufficiently strong to encourage new workers into the workforce. Sometimes firms have issues hiring labor, but they are finding that new laborers are becoming available. We're seeing a solid dynamic that when you are both adding workers and actual jobs, they are feeding on each other."

The indicators showed construction and business services employment provided significant contributions in Southern Oregon, as well.

The labor force numbers contributed positively to all regions, Duy said, adding that falling unemployment rates are contributing positively to almost all regional measures. The Rogue Valley is still posting below normal growth, he said, but measures show sustained improvement over the past year.

"I don't think we'll see the Rogue Valley fall back at this point," Duy said. "I feel like we're still fairly far from the end of this expansion and upward cycle. It's not the most spectacular expansion ever, but I'm fairly optimistic, and there's room on the upside. In Medford you're seeing the return of past dynamics of in-migration. If I didn't see that, it would be more of a concern. We've been lagging a bit on this cycle, but eventually it will become more substantial."

Continued lower interest rates should be a source of strength for the region for some time, he said.

"I don't think the Federal Reserve will tighten its monetary policy, or at least aggressively so, for a while," Duy said.

While falling energy prices could hurt investments in some states, such as North Dakota, he said the cumulative effect is good for consumers.

"I find it a fairly positive development," Duy said. "I think it's mostly about supply issues, there is a glut of oil on the market right now."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.