PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – It is still extremely difficult for employers in Oregon to find employees to fill their open positions, according to Oregon’s state Economist Mark McMullen who testified Thursday in front of the House Committee on Economic Development and Small Business.

“Employers are fighting over [employees] and increasing wages in order to capture those that are available,” he said as he gave lawmakers an update on the state’s workforce. 

Many people hoped the “help wanted” signs seen in storefronts across the state wouldn’t be as common as the pandemic eased, but that’s not the case. 

McMullen said a big reason for that is Baby Boomers hitting their retirement years. They’re vacating positions and there aren’t enough young employees to fill them. 

Within the next decade, McMullen said he expects another 15,000-20,000 Oregonians will drop out of the workforce as they reach their senior years. 

On top of that, for the first time in years, data show Oregon’s population is plateauing or possibly even shrinking

Neither is promising for the workforce holes that need to be filled. If Oregon wants to fill them, it will need to attract people from outside the state to move in or find ways to get people who aren’t working into the workforce. 

“The big one here is gender equality,” McMullen said in his testimony. “What if we were able to increase labor force participation among women up to the same levels as men in their cohort? And if you do that, the numbers are massive.” 

If an equal percentage of women participated in the workforce as men, it would add 156,000 more potential employees, according to data from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. 

However, adding women to the workforce is easier said than done. McMullen understands that the burden of caring for children traditionally falls on women. In order to add more women to the workforce, more would need to be done to support child care. 

Employment rates in Oregon are now above pre-pandemic levels, McMullen said. 

“There is not some reserve army of folks sitting on the couch playing video games… The shortage is from very high labor demand, not a lack of supply based on the Oregon data,” McMullen’s colleague, economist Josh Lehner, wrote in an email on workforce trends. 

There are currently 1.5 job openings for every unemployed Oregonian. 

“Unfortunately for employers, tight labor markets are going to persist as far as the eye can see,” McMullen said. 

According to Lehner, economic growth isn’t just about the number of workers, but also productivity. He said there are different forms of capital that can be used to increase worker productivity. 

These include financial capital – having money that allows employers to grow, physical capital – having the equipment and technology to support worker productivity, natural capital – putting natural resources to use, human capital – better developing skills in the workforce, and social capital – creating community networks and involvement. 

“Each regional economy within the state has strengths (and weaknesses) in these different forms of capital which can propel (or hinder) growth in the years ahead,” Lehner wrote.