Mid-Columbia job growth hits the skids

Job growth stalled in the Tri-Cities during May.

Although the overall number of employed workers increased over April, the Tri-Cities had 340 fewer workers employed when compared with the previous year.

Employment figures released Tuesday showed the Tri-City area had lost about 200 nonfarm jobs since April, which meant unemployment rates increased to 7.4 percent from 7.2 percent in April and just a notch worse than the 7.3 percent rate in May 2010.

Benton County's unemployment rate increased to 7.1 percent in May from 6.8 percent in April, while Franklin County's rate went up to 8.3 percent from 8.1 percent.

In numbers of actual jobs, the Tri-Cities had an estimated 123,620 people employed out of 133,570 in the work force. The number of unemployed increased by 420 to 9,950.

It's the first time since 2006 that May has seen a decrease in jobs compared with the prior year, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

The increase of 1,180 people in the work force in May is seasonal and expected, Suljic said. What was unusual was the decrease in nonfarm jobs.

Most of the loss was in professional services, which includes companies such as architecture, design, engineering, employment services, training and call centers, Suljic said.

Professional and technical services and trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities each saw a loss of 200 jobs in May.

Suljic said she wasn't sure if the losses in the professional and technical services category were all related to Hanford layoffs.

Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance laid off 125 workers in March, and the end of federal economic stimulus money Sept. 30 is expected to lead to 1,650 more layoffs by Hanford contractors by this fall. Some subcontractors also may be laying off workers as Recovery Act work wraps up.

In addition, Washington Closure Hanford is planning to start layoffs next year as its work to clean up Hanford along the Columbia River starts to wind down through September 2015.

Still, the Tri-Cities continued to have a lower unemployment rate than the state average for May of 9.1 percent, which was slightly lower than April's rate of9.2 percent.

Agriculture-related jobs helped absorb some of the nonfarm job loss, adding 865 jobs to a total of 10,099 in May.

In the nonfarm job category, construction was one area that saw growth, gaining about 200 jobs in May.

Dennis Poland, president of Ray Poland and Sons of Kennewick, said his company has maintained its 50 employees.

Growth in construction-related jobs doesn't mean those employees were hired at Tri-Cities-based firms, he said. Sometimes out-of-area contractors hire local labor.

Poland said his company has been fortunate to have steady work. He intends to remain optimistic until September.

Other industries with increased employment in May included 200 more jobs in leisure and hospitality, 100 more jobs each in food services, manufacturing and retail trade.

The Tri-Cities has drawn more visitors so far this year than last year, said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Motel occupancy rates were up by 7.7 percent in Benton County and 10.6 percent in Franklin County in May when compared with May 2010, she said.

That means more visitors for everything from businesses to tourism, she said.

"The industry is doing better than we did in the previous year," Watkins said.

And the visitors spend money in retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations, she added.

At Preston Premium Wines north of Pasco, Chenyn Preston-Johnson, tasting room manager and event coordinator, said the winery has kept its five full-time employees and six part-time employees, but hasn't added any more.

The wine industry did slow down with the recession, she said.

Preston-Johnson said customer traffic has decreased at the winery, which is off of Highway 395.

WorkSource does seem to have fewer job listings, with 750 in Benton and Franklin counties, said Candice Bluechel, WorkSource business manager.

But although listings may be fewer, the diversity of the positions involved still looks good, she said.

Agriculture is the only area in which Bluechel said she has companies with more than a couple of jobs open. Some employers are having to recruit more workers because some who were already hired didn't wait for work to start because the cool spring has slowed the season.

Those who are searching for employment still need to apply quickly, Bluechel said. Most employers are hiring as soon as they find the right person.

And resumes need to show employers that a candidate meets all requirements an employer is looking for, she said.

For maps about how Washington's unemployment rates have changed between 2007 and May 2011, visit tricityherald.com.