Tri-Cities unemployment drops in March

Tri-City HeraldApril 23, 2013 

— The Tri-Cities saw the largest jump in 20 years in jobs and its labor force from February to March, said a state regional labor economist.

More jobs in construction, food processing, agriculture and education and health services in March pushed the unemployment rate down to 9.7 percent, after two months of double digits, said Ajsa Suljic, with the state Employment Security Department.

The Tri-Cities has had two months of year-over-year nonfarm job growth after 16 consecutive months of shrinking employment, Suljic said.

“Overall employment for the Tri-Cities seems to be recovering better, minimizing the losses from Hanford,” she said.

About 3,620 more Tri-Citians had jobs last month than in February for a total of 118,750, according to data released Tuesday.

Nonfarm jobs skyrocketed by 1,100 to 99,000 jobs last month. Much of the rest of the growth can be attributed to agriculture, Suljic said.

More of the jobs went to some of the 2,630 people entering the labor force in March, Suljic said. But also there was a drop of 990 in unemployed workers, for a total of 12,710 unemployed.

But the Tri-Cities continued to stay higher than the state’s unemployment rate of 7.5 percent for March. Benton County’s jobless rate was 9.2 percent, while Franklin County’s was 10.9 percent.

Unemployment rates for other area counties were: Adams County, 10 percent; Columbia County, 11.3 percent; Grant County, 10.6 percent; Walla Walla County, 7.7 percent and Yakima County, 10.9 percent.

Professional and business services, the industry that includes most Hanford jobs, is down by 1,100 jobs in March compared to March 2012, according to the data.

The Department of Energy’s prime contractors at Hanford laid off 235 workers at the end of March because of forced federal budget cuts called sequestration.

That does not include many of the subcontractors working for the prime contractors, who are laying off employees as their subcontracts are reduced, delayed or canceled because of sequestration.

The effect of Hanford layoffs will still be seen in wages, since Hanford makes up 34 percent of the total wages, while the actual number of Tri-City jobs is 16 percent or fewer, Suljic said.

But some higher wage industries have seen growth, including education and health services, which is up 400 jobs year to date, and construction, which is up 300 jobs, Suljic said.

“Hopefully we will have a stable coming year and weather improves for agricultural activity,” she said.

Builders are gearing up for the construction season, which tends to mean some hiring, said Renee Brooks, with the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities. May through September are typically the busiest months for construction.

But the jobs are dependent on work available, she said, and currently, fewer building permits have been issued for new homes in the Tri-Cities this year compared to the same months last year.

Less new home activity in the last two years has caused some builders to expand their services and turn to remodeling to help provide enough work for employees, Brooks said. Manufacturing, which includes food processing, also grew by 500 jobs compared to March 2012, financial activities added 200 jobs and retail was up by 100.

Leisure and hospitality industries saw a job loss of 100 positions compared to March 2012, but Suljic said that is also tied to federal budget cuts.

The Tri-City hospitality industry will be staffing up to get ready for sports groups, conventions and leisure travel expected between Memorial Day and Labor Day, said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Wineries are continuing to see increased visitors with the growing recognition of the Tri-City area as wine country, Watkins said.

While government and business travel has been down, the Tri-Cities continues to see good traffic with conventions and sports tournaments, she said. At of the end of March, the Tri-Cities was averaging a 51 percent occupancy, which is higher than any other Eastern Washington city.

“We are holding our own,” Watkins said.

Job numbers for agriculture in March were not available because not enough farmers turning in the surveys used in the statistics, according to the state.

Spring’s arrival brings extra hiring, said Michelle Mann, WorkSource Columbia Basin representative. WorkSource Columbia Basin has about 750 jobs listed on its website, with a mix of highly skilled to entry-level jobs.

The bulk of agricultural hiring is just beginning, Mann said. The two upcoming job fairs at WorkSource Columbia Basin’s Kennewick office are both agriculture-related.

CRF, a food processor, is holding a hiring event 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 8. And the annual agricultural hiring fair is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 23.

WorkSource Columbia Basin continues to see steady traffic of people looking for work, Mann said. About 480 people use its services each month.

The Experience Unlimited Workshop offered the fourth Friday of each month continues to be well attended, Mann said. The workshop started a year ago to try to help older workers make themselves more marketable.

Mann said they noticed that older workers were among those who were unemployed for a longer time. The next workshop is 1 to 4 p.m. Friday at the Kennewick office.

Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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