Business

Tri-City unemployment ticks up but job growth continues

Workers from BNSF Railways work early Wednesday to fix a railroad crossing at First Avenue and “A” Street in Pasco. The ground under the crossing is saturated and muddy so workers were adding a gravel base before replacing the section of rails.
Workers from BNSF Railways work early Wednesday to fix a railroad crossing at First Avenue and “A” Street in Pasco. The ground under the crossing is saturated and muddy so workers were adding a gravel base before replacing the section of rails. Tri-City Herald

With fields barren and construction slowed for the cold winter months, the Tri-City unemployment rate in December ticked up to 7.8 percent, its highest point since last winter.

But that’s far from a sign of a stalling economy, said economists and business leaders.

The region has added 5,300 jobs compared with a year ago. That’s the second highest total new jobs of any community in the state, said regional economist Ajsa Suljic, with the state Department of Employment Security. Seattle was first and Tacoma was third with just 5,100 jobs added.

And new Tri-City jobs are coming into various sectors: the hospitality industry, retail, education and health care, and even the seasonally driven construction and agriculture industries have added hundreds of positions in the past year.

“When you look at how many industries have added jobs, it’s pretty amazing,” Suljic said.

When you look at how many industries have added jobs, it’s pretty amazing.

Ajsa Suljic, Department of Employment Security

Lori Mattson, CEO of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are thriving, with consumer confidence up and retails sales and home construction still climbing.

More workers are actually needed, but many employers are not only worried about finding qualified employees but holding onto them.

“Millenials, in particular, are prone to job changes every one to three years,” Mattson said. “As a community, its more and more important to think of place. We have to become the kind of place we can market.”

Millenials, in particular, are prone to job changes every one to three years. As a community, its more and more important to think of place. We have to become the kind of place we can market.

Lori Mattson, Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce

The residential labor force stood at 127,581 in December 2015, up slightly from the 127,305 the year before.

But the number of people employed was 117,644, up more than 2,000 from December 2014. The number of unemployed also was down about that same amount to 9,937 last month compared with a year earlier.

Only two sectors — financial services and professional and business services, which is typically associated with work at the Hanford site — showed job losses year-over-year, with declines of 300 positions and 200 positions respectively.

Service-related industries were responsible for the bulk of the new jobs at 4,700 positions added in the past year. That included 600 new jobs in retail and 1,000 in transportation and utilities.

Manufacturing, hospitality, education and health services and local government all added 400 to 500 jobs each, as well. Contractors and other businesses tied to construction have about 100 more workers than they did a year ago.

The Benton County unemployment rate for the month was 7.1 percent and Franklin was 9.4 percent, while the statewide average was 5.9 percent.

Walla Walla County was 6.4 percent, Adams and Grant counties 9.4 and Yakima County 10.2.

5.9 percent Statewide

6.4 percent Walla Walla Co.

7.1 percent Benton Co.

9.4 percent Franklin Co.

10.2 percent Yakima Co.

Some Tri-City industries could be constrained by a relatively small pipeline of qualified workers.

Many school districts, which are building new schools, need teachers but have struggled to fill full-time positions, forcing them to tap into substitute teacher pools.

The health care industry is continuing to expand and needs people all along the continuum of medical skills, from nurses and technicians to doctors and other specialists.

Contractors have said in recent months that they have a backlog of homes to build and that the region’s housing inventory is at one of its lowest recorded levels.

Young people entering the work force are deciding where they want to live before looking for a job, Mattson said.

They also don’t expect to stay at the same job for their whole career, another different approach compared to older workers. That makes it important for civic and regional leaders to make the Tri-Cities an attractive place to live and not just work.

But there’s no evidence that the struggle to find and keep good employees will stall the regional economy.

“I think 2016 is going to be a great year for employment here,” Mattson said.

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