Tri-City job growth marches on

Federal stimulus money continues to fuel job growth in the Tri-Cities.

Nonfarm jobs grew by more than 3 percent -- from 94,500 in April 2009 to 97,400 last month-- thanks largely to hiring by firms helping clean up Hanford, said Ajsa Suljic, the new regional labor economist for the Tri-Cities. Most jobs were in professional and business services, said Suljic, who recently replaced Dean Schau.

The latest count also shows 500 new jobs have been added since March.

"It's a good sign," Suljic said Tuesday after the state Employment Security Department released monthly employment data.

The gains were in construction, education and health services, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and trade transportation and warehousing.

Monthly job growth in the financial and retail trade sectors remained flat, though over the year the retail industry added 800 jobs for a total of 11,800. The local government and education sector lost about 100 jobs because of budget cuts.

The increased availability of seasonal agricultural jobs made many start looking for jobs again, adding 1,830 people last month to the work force, which stood at 130,210 in March.

Those jobs also helped trim the local unemployment rate from 8.3 percent in March to 6.7 percent last month, the largest drop since April 1993, Suljic said.

Employers remain cautious about hiring, but growth in labor force and relatively stable employment in retail, leisure and hospitality industries reflect positive trends in consumer confidence, she said, which will eventually spur local hiring.

The statewide unemployment rate fell from 9.5 percent in March to 9.2 percent in April, the first decline in more than three years.

"We may have moved off from the bottom. Looks like a trend to some degree at this point," said Dave Wallace, acting chief economist with the Employment Security Department.

The state added 5,800 nonfarm jobs last month, bringing the net gain to 14,800 nonfarm jobs in the first four months of 2010. Increased employment in construction, leisure and hospitality, retail trade, manufacturing, education and health service augurs well, Wallace said.

Both economists said it's hard to fathom how robust the national and regional recovery will be.

"We are not out of the woods yet," said Candice Bluechel, business services outreach manager at WorkSource Columbia Basin in Kennewick. She said every day at least 600 unemployed people still walk through the door at WorkSource. Many come to the Tri-Cities hoping to find jobs after they learned from news reports about the area's stable economy, which has weathered the recession better than a host of other communities.

Many local industries including food processing provide stable jobs, she said. But they can't absorb the influx of workers, she added.

Workers with technical, specialized skills, particularly in health care, may be able to find jobs with relative ease in the Tri-Cities, she said.

More seasonal agricultural jobs will become available in the months ahead, she said.

In Washington, an estimated 306,692 people were unemployed and looking for work.

Unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, as reported in other metropolitan areas around the state were: Bellingham, 8.0 percent; Bremerton, 7.2; Longview, 11.9; Mount Vernon-Anacortes, 9.8; Olympia, 7.5; Spokane, 8.8; Tacoma, 9.2; Wenatchee, 8.2; and Yakima, 9.0.

These labor market areas also were reported: Aberdeen, 12.5 percent; Centralia, 12.4; Ellensburg, 8.1; Moses Lake, 9.2; Oak Harbor, 8.5; Port Angeles, 9.3; Pullman, 5.5; Shelton, 10.3; and Walla Walla, 6.5.

Unemployment rates in other counties were: Adams, 7.4 percent; Asotin, 7.2; Chelan, 8.4; Clark, 13.7; Columbia, 10.0; Douglas, 7.9; Ferry, 13.2; Garfield, 7.0; Jefferson, 8.8; King, 7.5; Klickitat, 9.3; Lincoln, 8.0; Okanogan, 10.2; Pacific, 11.9; Pend Oreille, 12.5; San Juan, 6.4; Skamania, 12.4; Snohomish, 8.9; Stevens, 12.0; and Wahkiakum, 12.3.

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