Low unemployment rate, high number of newly created jobs draining potential-employee pool
The summer months are usually a challenging time for Peter Marshall to help companies fill vacant positions, but it’s been particularly tough this year.
“The previous summers when the Whatcom County unemployment rate was much higher (5.5 percent, in July 2004 and 6.7 percent in July 2003, compared to the current rate of 4.8 percent), I didn’t have nearly the challenges that I have now,” said Marshall, who has worked at the staffing agency An Employment Solution for five years. “Right now I’m struggling to find qualified applicants for a variety of jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector.”
With the unemployment rate remaining low and the number of local jobs created jumping substantially in the past year, some Whatcom County companies are having a difficult time filling positions, particularly for entry-level jobs.
“Companies are already starting to do things to make some of these jobs more attractive to potential applicants, such as raising the salary or adding bonuses,” Marshall said. “It’s tough for many of these companies to be patient, because summer is their busiest time of year.”
Even jobs that aren’t entry level are becoming tougher to fill, Marshall said. It took two weeks to fill two millwright positions that paid between $12 and $15 an hour. That’s a long time for companies, especially for positions that are only temporary to get through the busy season.
“Many of those qualified for that position are finding jobs that are paying $18 an hour,” Marshall said.
Even once-coveted positions aren’t receiving the same attention as a few years ago, although they are still being filled. In June, Georgia-Pacific began filling positions for its tissue mill, said Chip Hilarides, general manager of the facility.
“We still got applications for those positions, but the number of applicants was down from past hiring events,” Hilarides said. “We ended up hiring several former G-P employees, which is great for us because they have the experience we were looking for.”
Not all the big companies are finding a shallow labor pool. Whenever the BP Cherry Point Refinery is hiring, they still get between 10 to 15 times the number of job applicants for each job position, said Mike Abendhoff, a spokesperson for BP.
“We continue to find that Whatcom County has an extremely talented labor pool to draw from for many of our positions,” Abendhoff said. “We feel we offer a very competitive salary, and that attracts a lot of people, including those making a career change or recent college graduates.”
The reason the labor pool appears to be thinner for some industry sectors these days could be the surge in the number of jobs that have been created in the past year, said Jim Vleming, the state’s regional economist who studies the Bellingham area. He noted Bellingham has seen job creation in nearly all the industry sectors, especially in construction.
In a recent study completed by the Washington State Employment Security department, Whatcom County’s job growth rate between June 2004 and June 2005 was 4.3 percent, the second-highest in the state. In that period, 3,300 jobs were created in Whatcom County, 800 of which were in construction.
“When you have this kind of jump in the number of jobs created in one year, you end up with potential workers being siphoned away into the hot sectors like construction,” Vleming said. “So Whatcom County is probably seeing demand for employees rising in some sectors of the economy.”
Vleming noted the current unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in Whatcom County is at its lowest in quite some time. In 2000, the unemployment rate dipped down to 5 percent. He said anytime the unemployment rate falls below 5 percent, employers start noticing the demand increasing
“I would expect the unemployment rate to rise a little in the fall months, because that has been the historical trend in Whatcom County,” Vleming said. “But overall, I expect the unemployment rate to remain low through at least the first part of 2006, because I don’t see anything that would slow the local economy down at this point.”
If the unemployment rate remains low for a significant period of time, Whatcom County employers will probably respond with more incentives, Vleming said.
“Job applicants will start seeing better salary packages being offered, as well as things like better benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans and vacations,” Vleming said.
There is also the “fair weather” factor that may make it difficult for employers to find workers, Marshall said. When the weather is nice, Marshall has noticed people tend to take time off to enjoy it. After the rains return, more people begin to focus on finding work and making money. However, by the time winter rolls around, the dynamics have switched.
“For many companies, summer is their busiest time of the year, so in the winter there is less of a need to hire extra workers,” Marshall said. “So then we have less jobs available, but more people interested in working.”
Working harder to find just the right employee
Some companies are getting more creative in what they offer potential hires, not just attract workers, but to lure high-quality applicants. When T-Mobile decided to hire 100 more employees for its Bellingham call center (see story, page A1), the company instituted several measures to make the jobs more enticing, said Dennis Carroll, general manager of the Bellingham facility.
This includes a $1 million remodel to add amenities and a commitment to be as flexible as possible when it comes to scheduling, so students from the local colleges can work part-time and attend classes.
“We’re looking for people who want to make a career change instead of people who are just looking for a job,” said Carroll.
Carroll said the Bellingham facility has had the lowest job attrition rate within the T-Mobile company, but they are looking to improve that as they make the switch over from a “financial care” call center, which focuses on collecting payments, to a customer service center that focuses on helping customers with their products.
Making a job position more attractive is something more companies may need to do. According to the Washington Labor Market Quarterly Review, a publication put out by the Washington State Employment Security Department, the fundamentals are firmly in place for creating even more jobs, not only in Whatcom County, but the rest of the state.
Vleming agreed, saying the economy appears to be picking up steam throughout the state.
“Consumer demand for products, including housing, continues to be solid, and we continue to see growth in all of the major industry sectors,” Vleming said. “The economy appears to be looking up throughout the state, including Whatcom County.”