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Construction hires add to job growth in June

Activity in the plan room at the Medford Builders Exchange may be the clearest evidence of a robust construction industry in Jackson County.

"We're a lot busier than we were a year ago," said plan room manager Rachel Fullenwider, whose firm assists the building industry. "There are more jobs flowing through right now, whether they're going out to bid or through the pre-application phase."

Figures released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show county employers added 110 new construction jobs in June and 310 over the past 12 months. Along with the seasonal leisure and hospitality and retail sectors, the county added 920 jobs last month. During the past 12 months, local payrolls have picked up 2,460 positions.

The county's seasonally adjusted jobless rate for June was 6.1 percent as the flow of high school graduates and college students home for the summer boosted the labor force to 101,639. While the unemployment figure edged up from 5.6 percent in May, it was a full point below the 7.1 percent June 2015 figure.

"The normal commercial stuff in the valley is doing well," said Russ Batzer, president of Batzer Construction. "Three years ago, 90 percent of the market was public works, but it's much less than that right now."

From the Northgate Marketplace in Medford to the bypass project east of the airport to Southern Oregon University projects, contractors are keeping busy.

"We're not seeing this as much in the Rogue Valley, but there's been a huge uptick in manufacturing throughout the West," Batzer said. "So we're responding to projects in Colorado, Utah, California and Eastern Oregon."

Small-scale manufacturing has created new jobs as entrepreneurs develop their ideas and bring them to market.

"I'm hearing from people who are interested in developing more sophisticated skill sets relative to managing manufacturing operations, strategy and financing," said John Lamy, who manages the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership's Medford office.

His clients are asking questions that indicate tight labor markets and the need to retain talented employees.

Even though general contractors for Northgate Marketplace, the refurbishing work at the Veterans Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City or Southern Oregon University projects may not be local, they often work in conjunction with local contractors, Fullenwider said.

While Batzer and other contractors are booked into the foreseeable future, Fullenwider and her associates have picked up election-cycle effects on construction dating back to 2000.

"Election years are always a little weirder," she said. "People go full force because they know the situation, but come November things slow down until they know what's going to happen in the presidential and what party wins. Sometimes it doesn't mean anything and sometimes it does."

While Batzer wishes he had a crystal ball at his disposal, he has to rely on other factors.

"Who knows what's going to happen after the election?" Batzer said. "But I don't think it will have much impact on our construction activity in the short term; to me two years is short term."

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