Tri-Cities still an employer's market as openings scarce

They stood patiently by the score, waiting to be interviewed for a job Tuesday in the parking lot of the yet-to-open Hobby Lobby store on Canal Drive in Kennewick.

Ginger Johnson, 61, spent close to two hours in line with several dozen other unemployed people. The former waitress wants to get a job again after staying at home to care for her mother for about three years. She said she hopes her floral arrangement skills will be her ticket to work at the store, adding that shewasn't surprised by the long line of job seekers.

Men and women, young and old, joined the line at regular intervals. Stephen Johnson, who was laid off from a Seattle-area Target store about a year ago (and is not related to Ginger) showed up after learning from a friend of the possible job openings.

"It's been pretty difficult to find a job in the Tri-Cities," he said. But it's getting better in terms of opportunities, said Johnson, 41 who is living with family in Kennewick. Johnson, who has a high school diploma, said he's willing to accept a part-time position.

There are 75 jobs available -- from assistant manager to stocker, said Hobby Lobby's Janice Zassenhaus, one of the two interviewers.

"We shall be accepting applications through Friday," she said.

The lineup of applicants lasted most of the day despite a year of steady nonfarm job growth in the Tri-Cities, which has gained national renown for job creation.

New statistics out Tuesday showed Benton County posted the nation's second-largest employment increase -- from March 2009 to March 2010 -- when employment declined in 296 of the 326 largest U.S. counties, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

"It's an employer's market," said Candice Bluechel, business services outreach manager at WorkSource Columbia Basin in Kennewick. WorkSource is a state-funded agency that helps businesses find workers and helps the unemployed get short-term training.

Employers are looking for workers with more skills, Bluechel said. Everybody is trying to do more with less, she said. "We don't have enough jobs to keep everyone employed."

The Tri-Cities might be better than other places to find high-paying technical jobs, but it's no better when it comes to jobs in retail or food services, Ginger Johnson said.

"Our employment growth is driven by Hanford," said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist for the Tri-Cities, adding that other local industries haven't grown at the same level, she said. That explains why unemployment remains high despite a 3.3 percent annual job growth rate in the last 10 years, she said.

Last month, gains in food processing, education and health services, and local school districts largely helped bring the tally of nonfarm jobs to 100,800, up 300 from August.

During the year, nonfarm jobs grew more than 4 percent, thanks to professional and business services, administrative and support services, education and health services, and the state and local government sectors, Suljic said.

As people move from across the nation to work at Hanford, they bring family members, who in many cases want to find a job, which makes job hunting more competitive, she said.

With 8,460 unemployed workers, the Tri-City area's unemployment rate stood at 6 percent in September, declining marginally from August, Suljic said. In contrast, the average September unemployment rate from 2004-09 was 4.9 percent.

Last month, the private sector lost about 400 jobs, mostly in retail, food services and hospitality, and the transportation sector, she said.

"Area employers have remained very cautious about the local economic projections and remained very conservative in hiring," she said.

It's hard for job seekers of all ages and genders, Bluechel said. But many national retail chains have started looking for help for the holiday season, she said. Last week, a job fair at WorkSource attracted 25 employers, half of them retailers, and more than 300 job seekers.

She said she never tires of telling job seekers to improve their computer skills. That'll be great help whatever they do, she said.

In contrast to the Tri-Cities, the state's unemployment rate held steady at 9 percent. Job declines were reported in the government sector, professional and business services, construction, leisure and hospitality and education and health services.

Year to date, the private sector helped add 8,800 jobs statewide. Washington had 17,700 fewer jobs last month than in September 2009, a 0.6 percent decrease. Nationally, employment grew by 0.3 percent during the past year.

An estimated 303,183 people in Washington were unemployed and looking for work, and 223,288 people received state unemployment benefits in September.

Unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, as reported in other metropolitan areas were: Bellingham, 7.7 percent; Bremerton, 7.0; Longview, 11.2; Mount Vernon-Anacortes, 9.1; Olympia, 7.2; Spokane, 8.2; Tacoma, 8.8; Wenatchee, 6.3; and Yakima, 7.2.

In smaller labor markets: Aberdeen, 11.5 percent; Centralia, 11.7; Ellensburg, 8.4; Moses Lake, 7.5; Oak Harbor, 8.5; Port Angeles, 9.2; Pullman, 5.2; Shelton, 10.1; and Walla Walla, 6.4.

Unemployment rates in other counties were: Adams, 6.7 percent; Asotin, 7.3; Chelan, 6.4; Clark, 12.0; Columbia, 9.1; Douglas, 6.1; Ferry, 11.6; Garfield, 5.6; Jefferson, 8.8; King, 8.4; Klickitat, 8.3; Lincoln, 7.0; Okanogan, 7.1; Pacific, 10.1; Pend Oreille, 10.8; San Juan, 5.5; Skamania, 8.8; Snohomish, 9.6; Stevens, 10.1; and Wahkiakum, 11.8.

w Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com; Business Beat blog at www.tricityherald.com