Mid-Columbia business leaders and state officials have a lot to be happy about with the latest data on the future of the region’s job market.
Benton and Franklin counties are expected to have the third-highest work force growth rate out of the state’s 12 regions through 2023 after posting the largest growth trend in the state since 1990, according to the 2015 Employment Projections from the state Employment Security Department.
Positions in technology are expected to be among the few jobs with far more openings than prospective employees, playing to the focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, that local school districts and higher education institutions have been betting on.
Statewide, construction is expected to see the most growth of any industry, with more than 2,000 of those positions from new growth alone.
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The industries of professional and business services and health and education, all with a strong presence in the Mid-Columbia, will likely become larger in the coming years, especially with older workers retiring.
“I think it speaks really well of our economy here,” said Lori Mattson, president and CEO of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Overall, this is great news for the community and employers.”
Not everything may be rosy, though. While construction is expected to grow, the industry is still not at the level it was prior to the Great Recession. Manufacturing is expected to decline. Among those lines of work expected to see more demand for workers are janitors and cleaners, cashiers and retail salespeople, jobs that don’t often pay a high wage.
But Mattson and others with knowledge of the region’s economic climate said they aren’t worried that the Tri-Cities won’t continue to grow and prosper, with plenty of opportunities for people willing to do the work.
“You have to have some training, you have to have some marketable skill,” said Dean Schau, associate professor of economics at Columbia Basin College.
Economists are expecting the state’s nonfarm employment to grow by an average of 1.8 percent over the next 10 years. That’s higher than the previous 10-year average of 1.6 percent. The Benton-Franklin projected growth rate is expected to be about 1.9 percent, slightly higher than the state average.
Regional economist Ajsa Suljic said the region has regularly outpaced state growth averages, in large part because of the five industries—professional and business services out at Hanford, agriculture, health services, education and manufacturing—that are responsible for more than 60 percent of jobs.
“That’s rarely seen anywhere,” Suljic said. “Most communities only have two or three major industries.”
While manufacturing is expected to decline around the state, the Mid-Columbia’s diverse economy can help absorb shocks to a big player. Schau said periodic cutbacks at Hanford used to devastate the region, but that isn’t as much of the case anymore.
CBC and Washington State University Tri-Cities have been looking to produce more graduates suited for STEM fields. That should mesh with the projected demand for more than 2,000 new software developers and other workers in computer applications the state is expecting.
Both institutions have also increased their offerings in health care education, one of the most in-demand fields in the region, according to Jack Fitzgerald with Worksource Columbia Basin.
While the projected increase in construction laborers and carpenters will provide more family-wage jobs, officials acknowledged the expected growth in retail sales and cleaning services represents jobs that are low-skill, temporary and less likely to support a family.
But Suljic said those jobs teach skills people need in the workplace and can use for a better, future job. Service sector jobs are also important in supporting the region’s major industries, ensuring their employees have places to eat, shop and play, Mattson said.
Regardless, there will still be many skilled jobs looking to hire as baby boomers retire, Schau said. That means those who take the initiative to continue their education, even if it’s only a certificated program and not a full-on college education, will be the best poised to take advantage of the growth.
“We were seeking a budget analyst and we had no applicants,” Schau said. “We also had a listing for an accountant. Do you know any?”