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Climbing the ladder

What a difference a year makes.

According to the Milken Institute, an economic think tank, Medford is 28th on the 2015 Best-Performing Small Cities list.

Since last year, Medford jumped 63 places on the list, which ranks 201 metropolitan areas using nine measures to rate their economic vitality.

A year ago, the Medford metropolitan area languished in 91st place. In 2013, the city settled in at No. 114 — signs the Great Recession bus hadn't yet pulled out of town.

But when small markets, with populations of less than 300,000, were evaluated this year, only three other metros advanced more than Medford. Macon, Ga., soared 90 positions to No. 49; Redding, Calif., jumped 67 spots to No. 71; and Niles Benton Harbor, Md., rose 65 places to No. 103.

With Grants Pass reaching the threshold for the first time and debuting at No. 56, Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. Executive Director Ron Fox was further cheered.

"I think it's time to give a couple of hoorays that we've turned the ship around," Fox said. 

Milken looks at job growth, wage and salary growth, and high-tech concentration, diversity and growth.

After dropping from No. 1 to No. 11 in the high-tech diversity measure last year, Medford improved to No. 9 this year, and it came in at No. 13 in year-over-year job growth ending in August 2015.

"Since Medford, and Oregon in general, entered the recovery a little later, it accounts for some of the rise in Medford's performance," said Minoli Ratnatunga, co-author of the Best-Performing Cities report. 

Jackson County holds a higher concentration of companies than the nation at large in five industries: computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing, communications equipment manufacturing, audio and video equipment manufacturing, semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing and software publishers.

"There is certainly a need to invest in those industries and encourage them to grow," Ratnatunga said. "It's important to have the right mix of industries and to make sure local institutions are training people with the right skills to help those companies grow."

Fargo, N.D., remained No. 1 for the second year, followed by Bismark, N.D. Another energy-rich region, Odessa, Texas, was No. 5.

Bend-Redmond entered the Top 10 at No. 8, jumping 38 spots, and Corvallis was No. 86, rising 19 spots.

With energy production and prices falling, there likely will be a shuffle at the top next year.

Fox said the high-tech companies are often unseen, partly because their buildings don't stand out and don't have large staffs.

"People can figure out where Boise Cascade and Harry & David are, but they might not even be able to identify Carestream Health," Fox said. "Most of our industries are invisible, but by the metrics Milken is using, we're right there."

One constant elephant in the room, however, is wage growth, where Medford lags behind the Top 34 overall metros.

Based on first-quarter 2014 figures, among the most recent available, Employment Department regional economist Guy Tauer charted Jackson County industries paying $15 an hour or more. About 53 percent of the jobs in Jackson County paid $15 or more an hour. Two-thirds of manufacturing jobs were in that range; wholesale trade, 68 percent; information and software, 69 percent; and transportation and warehousing, 70 percent. Conversely, only 23 percent of leisure and hospitality jobs paid $15 or more; 34 percent for retail trade; with natural resources, including logging, at 49 percent.

In the first quarter of 2015, 54.6 percent of Jackson County wage earners received $15 or more per hour. Statewide, more than 60 percent of wage earners received more than $15 per hour in Multnomah, Morrow, Washington, Gilliam, Benton and Clackamas counties, while Lane, Marion, Crook, Deschutes, Union and Grant counties had higher percentages than Jackson County of employees earning $15 an hour. Only 48.6 percent of Josephine County wage earners topped $15 per hour.

"What would it look like if we could get wage growth closer to the median?" Fox wondered. "We struggle with our wage rates, and frankly some of it is that people will work for less. If it wasn't, people would leave and there would be upward pressure to raise wages."

The challenge going forward, he said, is to provide skilled workers ready to step into jobs when they are created.

"Obviously, we have no influence on global and national economic trends," Fox said. "We know if global demand for goods and services decline, it would place a big decline in our region."

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

Blackstone Audio employee Lucas Pylant gathers audiobooks for shipping in the company's warehouse. Companies such as Blackstone are one reason Medford and Jackson County jumped 63 places last year on the Milken Institute's list of the Best-Performing Small Cities in the U.S. MT file photo