Exactly why the Tri-Cities saw its unemployment rate drop to 7.7 percent in August is a bit of a mystery.
The number of farm and nonfarm jobs fell during August, according to data released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.
But the number of Tri-Citians out of work and actively seeking a job dropped too, down to 10,170 people. That’s almost 11 percent fewer people looking for work than in August last year.
Ajsa Suljic, state regional labor economist for Benton and Franklin counties, said the labor force in the Tri-Cities declined in August, to 132,390 people, or about 2,620 people fewer than in July.
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What that means is that those people haven’t looked for a job during the four-week period, she said.
But officials do not know if that means people just gave up looking, retired or moved out of the area.
Suljic said it’s a trend economists have noticed statewide, including in other areas such as Spokane and King County. Unemployment is falling, even though the number of jobs has not necessarily grown.
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke said during a recent news conference that part of the downward trend in the national labor force is not from the recession. Factors also include an aging population, fewer women and fewer men ages 25 to 54 in the work force, he said.
Despite the local drop in unemployment, the Tri-City jobless rate remains above the state average, which was 6.8 percent in August. Benton County’s rate was 7.8 percent, while Franklin County’s was 7.5 percent.
About 122,220 Tri-Citians had jobs in August, about 1,700 fewer than in July. Still, that’s up by 1,130 people from the same time last year, according to the data.
Two areas that saw 100 more jobs added were in administrative and waste services and food services and drinking places.
Those likely are Amazon.com positions. The company announced plans to start hiring 100 more workers for its Kennewick call center as part of a nationwide expansion.
Hanford jobs were stable in August, Suljic said. However, officials are not sure what Hanford employment will look like in the upcoming months since the federal government has yet to decide on a budget.
Fluor Corp. in Richland announced this summer plans to lay off about 40 to 50 workers in late September as it reduces the work done in the Tri-Cities.
More workers will get pink slips but will be given the chance to transfer to Fluor offices elsewhere or to CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. at Hanford.
The Tri-Cities saw a seasonal slowdown in state and local education jobs with summer break in August, Suljic said. Government jobs were down by 800.
Food manufacturing too tends to be slow in August because of crop activity, she said. Manufacturing was down by 300 jobs from July.
Farm jobs also slowed, dropping to 19,830 jobs in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. That’s up by 770 jobs from last year, but a decline of 4,580 jobs from July.
Part of the decline is because work on Walla Walla farms harvesting onions and potatoes happens mostly in July, Suljic said.
Farm jobs should increase in September and October. Wine grape and potato harvests are at a peak now. Also being harvested are apples and juice grapes.
While potatoes are dug by machines, apples are picked by hand. Grape harvest is a mix of machines and people.
Because of more jobs in the area’s apple orchards, WorkSource Columbia Basin is seeing fewer job seekers than during earlier months, said Michelle Mann, a WorkSource representative. But that’s normal for this time of year.
WorkSource continues to see an average of 400 to 500 job seekers a month, she said.
There are more than 950 job openings listed, with a range of skill levels and industries, she said.
On Thursday, Washington State University Tri-Cities plans a job fair open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. on its Richland campus.
The Washington State Patrol will hold a career fair from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 4 at WorkSource Columbia Basin’s Kennewick office.
UniSea, a food processor, plans a hiring event for jobs in Alaska from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 15. at the Kennewick office.
Area county unemployment rates for August include: Adams County, 6.9 percent; Columbia County, 8.6 percent; Grant County, 7.2 percent; Walla Walla County, 6.1 percent and Yakima County, 8.8 percent.