Tri-Cities continues to see healthy job market

The Tri-Cities can thank federal stimulus money and highway construction work for helping the community weather the recession better than many other Washington communities, a state economist says.

Federal stimulus money for Hanford cleanup and ongoing road work helped the Tri-Cities buck the state trend and show an increase in jobs last month, said Dean Schau, regional labor economist.

The latest data released Tuesday by the State Employment Security Department shows Tri-City nonfarm jobs in June grew 1.36 percent over the year, and were up about 1.57 percent since May.

The tally showed 97,200 non-agricultural jobs for the month, an increase of 1,300 jobs over the year.

Gains were reported largely in professional and business services, and administrative and support services. Although construction was down 600 jobs over the year, the sector added 200 jobs in June compared with May, Schau said.

Public sector employment was up 800 since June 2008 and 100 since May. About 60 percent of the increase was at local school districts, which suggests continued economic and population growth, Schau said.

The unemployment rate in the Tri-Cities dropped from 7 percent in May to 6.8 percent in June despite an increase of 5,950 workers in the total labor force of 134,000. There were 9,130 people looking for work in the Tri-Cities last month.

In contrast, the state’s unemployment rate climbed from 9.1 percent in May to 9.3 percent in June. The national unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in June.

Employment Security reported the state also lost an estimated 10,500 nonfarm jobs last month. In all, Washington had 117,800 fewer jobs in June, compared with June 2008, a decline of 4 percent.

The Tri-Cities managed to do OK thanks largely to federal support for Hanford cleanup, Schau said. Agriculture, food processing and power generation provide an additional cushion for the area economy with both seasonal and permanent jobs, he added.

That doesn’t mean some people aren’t hurting, Schau said. “Ask anyone who’s been laid off or is looking for a job and they’ll tell you there’s a lot of pain out there,” he said.

People also aren’t spending money, particularly on big-ticket items, which explains why the retail sector saw a loss of 600 jobs over the year, Schau said. The decline also likely was caused by the recent closure of national chain stores like Circuit City in Richland and Joe’s Sports in Kennewick.

The silver lining is that at least some consumers still are eating out or sipping wine locally, Schau said. He said that perhaps helps account for an increase of 100 jobs in the food service industry in June. Together with leisure and hospitality, the food services sector provided more than 16,000 jobs last month.

That trend was mirrored stateside, where the leisure and hospitality sector added 500 jobs last month and the retail industry lost 2,100 jobs.

Laurin Rogers, who was laid off in October from his $20 an hour job as an aviation technician in Pasco, said the Tri-Cities offers jobs opportunities even during these tough times. Government contract work at Hanford and potential jobs it will create elsewhere will help the community get through the recession, Rogers said.

Instead of choosing a lower-paying job in a different field, Rogers, 49, said he decided to go to Columbia Basin College to pursue a business degree. He said he wants to get into project management and is working to improve his leadership skills.

Candice Bluechel, business services outreach manager at WorkSource Columbia Basin, said she hopes the community can build on the momentum provided by the federal dollars. Lockheed Martin and Washington URS, which recently got non-stimulus federal money, are still looking for skilled workers for local projects, Bluechel said. Most of those jobs are technical, she said.

Hiring for seasonal agricultural jobs also is in full swing, she said. And some restaurants and hotels are trying to hire. Other sectors of the economy aren’t offering many job opportunities, she said. “Nobody is hiring in a big way.”

Bluechel said retailers may start to hire again for the back-to-school season. For example, recently inquired about holding a local job fair, she said. Those looking for jobs can check out the WorkSource website for more than than 1,200 current openings.

Source: Tri-City Herald

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