Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles on health care and medical education options in Southern Oregon.

Southern Oregon — the state’s longtime Timber Belt — is gaining a reputation as a retiree magnet. Drawn by the lower cost of living among other factors, retirees, ages 60 to 65, are moving into the region in higher numbers than any other age group. This is a stark contrast to the pronounced out-migration of youth, ages 20 to 29, the region has experienced. As the region struggles to recover from the recession, such demographic shifts pose both present and future economic challenges.

“One of the biggest obstacles facing rural and southern Oregon is demographics. An aging population can result in a lower labor force participation rate, which is cause for concern in stifling future economic growth,” said Josh Lehner, senior economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. “Rural Oregon, like its national counterparts, faces population losses among young working age groups. Those in the root-setting years, between 25 and 34 years old who are beginning careers in earnest and settling down, are important to the long-term vitality of the economy.”  

Lehner added, “Unlike national trends, these losses in rural and southern Oregon are offset with a strong influx of older migrants from other states.”

Regional migration patterns

Like the Rust Belt and the Corn Belt, the Timber Belt has suffered substantial economic losses spanning decades. Logging restrictions coupled with a range of other factors, including tough market conditions through the Great Recession, have, in particular, taken a significant toll on the industry and, consequently, the regional economy.

Unemployment rates across Southern Oregon have remained high following the recession despite improvements in urban areas of the state. At the height of the recession, unemployment across the region averaged nearly 16 percent. It was not until last year that unemployment fell into single digits. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average unemployment rate for Southern Oregon counties at 6.7 percent. This compares with the state’s current unemployment rate of 4.8 percent.

But, unlike the Rust Belt or the Corn Belt, a bright spot for the Timber Belt is that its population has not dwindled. Rather, older adults primarily from out of state have moved into Southern Oregon counties at rates markedly higher than other age groups.

“Oregon is a destination state. Americans are moving in, and it’s certainly not just to Portland. What is perhaps unique is that we are seeing particularly older adults in and around retirement age moving into Southern Oregon in large numbers. This population growth is largely an influx of California retirees in search of more affordable housing. And, while they are not likely participating in the workforce, they are feeding the economy through local spending, including for health care,” said Lehner.

The in- and out-migration patterns across Oregon are routinely tracked and studied by Portland State University’s Population Research Center. Its county-specific studies, using U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000 to 2010, show larger numbers of older adults at about retirement age have moved into Southern Oregon counties as compared with other age groups. And, in stark contrast, large out-migrations of younger individuals, ranging from age 20 to 29, are indicated for each county, as well.

“It is typical to see net out-migration of youth from rural and smaller urban areas, who leave in search of training, education, employment and new life experiences in larger urban areas,” said Risa Proehl, Oregon Population Forecast Program Manager at PSU’s Population Research Center. “Net out-migration rates of young adults from Southern Oregon have become more pronounced with the loss of jobs in the timber industry.”   

As revealed in the county-specific studies conducted by PSU’s Population Research Center, all Southern Oregon counties experienced out-migration of young adults from 2000 to 2010. The greatest losses were in Douglas County with about 3,700 individuals ages 20 to 29 moving away from the area. Josephine County experienced similar losses with about 2,600 young adults moving away.

“Do they come back is a good question?” said Proehl. “Young people who move away to larger urban areas often find jobs and put down roots there once they graduate. We do see some returning later in life to their hometowns for reasons like raising families, caring for elderly parents, or moving back into their family homes.”

Proehl noted that the out-migration of young adults is expected to continue in all Southern Oregon counties expect for Jackson County. The net out-migration will be at lower rates given the improving economy, however, and a slight net in-migration will likely begin to occur in Jackson County in the future.

Moving away

Born and raised in Roseburg, Megan Morehouse, age 27, has strong ties to Southern Oregon. But, last year, she and her fiancée along with 6-year-old daughter, Elenorah, moved to the Seattle area in pursuit of an education and jobs.  

“Leaving my hometown of Roseburg was tough. It was really amazing to have a support network of family and friends around to help with my daughter, especially when I was going to school at UCC,” said Morehouse. “But, I wanted to pursue a career in health care and had gone as far as I could in getting local training.”

Morehouse noted that she had looked around the region for advanced training in her choice field of ultrasonography, but was drawn to the Health Sciences, Education & Wellness Institute at Bellevue College.

“Back in high school I became interested in photography and used to do senior photos and family portraits for extra money,” said Morehouse. “Years later, when I was expecting my daughter, I had my first ultrasound. Going through the process and seeing the ultrasound photos sparked my old love for photography in a new way. I got inspired and began taking health and science classes.”

Morehouse added, “I would have stayed in Southern Oregon if I had found the right program.”

A reason to stay

Southern Oregon’s out-migration of young adults poses many challenges as the region struggles to recover from the recession. Among them are workforce shortages that can weigh down economic recovery and future growth. And, filling workforce gaps will require greater investments toward recruitment and hiring, which otherwise would be spent on business operations and expansion.

“At a time when Southern Oregon is experiencing a large exodus of youth and young families leaving in search of educational opportunities and jobs elsewhere, we need to give them a reason to stay,” said Wayne Patterson, executive director of The Partnership for Economic Development in Douglas County. “Our region needs new workforce training opportunities that can connect individuals to jobs in the area.”

Among its efforts to stimulate southern Oregon’s economy, The Partnership is spearheading an initiative to build a regional allied health medical college. It is envisioned to serve multiple, high-demand medical fields by offering advanced bachelor and graduate level programs. Students would come from high schools, community colleges and workforce training programs throughout the region, in addition to being drawn from other areas. A broad-based coalition of community leaders, health care providers, educators, economic development groups and others is working on the effort.

“Health care demand has grown in recent years and is projected to keep rising. National reforms have connected large numbers of individuals with a wide range of health care services. We’ve seen an influx of older adults moving into the region with greater health care needs, too. Plus, a silver tsunami of aging baby boomers is soon expected to put even greater strain on health care services,” said Patterson. “Hospitals and providers are expanding services, but are facing greater difficulties in expanding their medical staff.”

Patterson added, “Capitalizing on health care’s strength and vitality by building a new regional allied health medical college provides training opportunities that can link local individuals to family wage jobs here in the region. And, it will ensure communities have access to health care, while helping boost our regional economy.”

Kelly Bantle is vice president for Pac/West, a public affairs firm working with Oregonians for Rural Health. She can be reached at bantle@pacwestcom.com.

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