Tri-Cities see employment growth

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 21, 2012 

Tri-Citians can be thankful this October's job outlook is better than a year ago.

The Tri-Cities saw employment continue to grow in October, thanks to agriculture, construction, manufacturing and retail, causing unemployment to drop to 7.7 percent, according to data released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

That's a stark contrast to the rapid unemployment growth in October 2011 after Hanford contractors finished laying off about 2,000 workers in the fiscal year that ended September 2011.

A total of 124,390 Tri-Citians were employed in October. That's an increase of 550 compared to September, although it is still 1,980 fewer than October 2011.

Nonfarm jobs grew by 200 between September and October to 99,300, but were still about 3,000 fewer than October 2011.

Hanford contractors have continued to lay off workers this year, which is reflected in those numbers, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

Professional and business services, where most Hanford jobs appear, experienced a year-to-year job loss of 3,100.

Still, the number of unemployed area residents has dropped to 10,340, a decline of 170 compared to last month and 120 compared to the same time last year.

Benton County's unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in October, while Franklin County's was 7.3 percent. That remained above the state's rate of 7.2 percent.

Agricultural employment in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties was up by 6.6 percent compared to the same time last year. There were about 17,850 jobs during October, which was a growth of 1,110 jobs compared to October 2011, according to the monthly Agricultural Labor Employment and Wages report.

The Tri-City area needed more seasonal farm workers this year, Suljic said. Workers were kept busy picking apples and other crops.

The area returned to 2008 and 2009 agricultural employment levels, after seeing agricultural employment drop in 2010, she said.

Construction gained 200 jobs compared to the same time last year, while manufacturing and retail each added 100 jobs.

Suljic said construction appears to be stabilizing with a slight, positive job growth.

Construction saw job gains and no change for several months in a row this year, she said. And despite seeing some seasonal job losses, the industry has continued to see higher employment than the previous year.

Retail is seeing some job expansions as consumer confidence increases, Suljic said.

People are feeling more confident in the national economy, increasing their willingness to spend money on furniture, cars and appliances and to invest in their home, she said.

Government jobs also grew compared to last October, with 100 more people employed in local government jobs and 300 more employed by the state.

Leisure and hospitality areas were down by about 400 jobs compared to October 2011.

That can be attributed to a drop in business and government travel with the end of stimulus dollars, said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau. Richland hotels in particular have seen a drop in occupancy.

Still, the Tri-Cities is seeing higher occupancy levels than most cities in Eastern Washington and are comparable to Spokane's levels, she said. More people are coming to conventions and sports events in the Tri-Cities.

In addition to job growth, the Tri-Cities also saw an increase in the local labor force to about 134,730 people. That's about 380 higher than last month, while still about 2,100 lower than last year.

Suljic said seeing both the labor force and employment grow is a sign of an expanding local economy.

At WorkSource Columbia Basin, there continues to be a variety of job openings listed, although agriculture jobs have dropped off as the season comes to an end, said Michelle Mann, WorkSource Columbia Basin area manager. In particular, one company is looking for welders right now.

About 2,000 people are coming to the Kennewick office for help in their job search during a month, which is about average, she said.

Unemployment rates for area counties are: Adams County, 6.5 percent; Columbia County, 9.1 percent; Grant County, 7.4 percent; Walla County, 5.9 percent; and Yakima County, 7.6 percent.

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