Employment: the lagging economic indicator

In just three years, unemployment in Whatcom County jumped from 3.7 percent to 10 percent. There are signs that the...

Local job numbers grim, but improving

By Ryan Wynne

Katie Fellows, a 2006 Western Washington University graduate, walked into work on a seemingly average workday two months ago. She soon realized that day would be a turning point in her life.

Rob Knode, a salesman with 25 years experience, received an unwanted surprise when he went into work on Aug. 10, 2009, which led him on a journey most people don’t tend to go on after 50.

What do these two have in common? At least two things: they were both laid off and have struggled with unemployment during this recession.

According to regional employment data, the unemployment rate is beginning to decline, but it remains high and that means people looking for jobs can’t find them. In April, the unemployment rate dropped to 8 percent in the Bellingham/Whatcom County area. While that may seem low compared with the 10 percent unemployment rate just a few months ago, it is much higher than numbers from 2007, which bottomed out at 3.7 percent. Not to mention that 8 percent represents 8,590 neighbors who are looking for work, but can’t find it.

“We are not going to see 3.6 any time soon. I just think this is going to be a slow recovery,” said Jim Vleming, a regional labor economist for Washington State.

‘Uncharted territory’

The last time April rates were close to this high was in 1994, Vleming said, and over the past couple of years, Whatcom County unemployment rates have been higher than any previously recorded.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory,” he said.

Gary Smith, regional director for WorkSource Northwest, which covers Whatcom County, said visits to the free one-stop career center have increased dramatically in the past few years. He said visits are up 78 percent since the beginning of the recession in 2007, and that for every one job that opens, there are six people looking.

“It’s unprecedented in our system,” Smith said.

Not only is it unprecedented, it’s also demanding and challenging for WorkSource employees and, it goes without saying, for most people using the federally and state-funded program, he said.

“Being out of work is being out of work. It is a very difficult emotional experience,” Smith said,  comparing it to the stages of grief.

Pounding the pavement

Fellows may or may not be dealing with those stages. Either way, she said she is going through a hard time. She was blindsided two months ago when her employer laid her off.

“I showed up to work that day and by afternoon I was no longer employed,” Fellows said.

Fellows graduated from Western with a degree in business administration and was able to find a job right away. Jobs are harder to come by than they were four years ago and Fellows said she has searched for a job for two months and applied for 40 to 50.

Even though unemployment numbers are beginning to decline, Fellows said she is hesitant to embrace optimism.

“Honestly, because I’m in the position of being unemployed, I don’t think it’s getting any better,” Fellows said.

Of the 40 to 50 jobs she applied for, Fellows said she has had four nibbles. She had two interview and two call backs.

“Once you try a little bit harder and you still aren’t getting anywhere, you kind of go back into a rut,” Fellows said.

Knode, who was also surprised by a layoff, said the old, traditional way of job seeking doesn’t really work any more. He said he didn’t turn in resumes, but instead turned to networking. That, and the decades of experience he has under his belt paid off. He found a job within about two months of being let go. Not that it was easy for him. Knode said he had to scrape by during that period.

Knode was able to find a job much quicker than most. Vleming said nationwide, it is taking job seekers an average 33 weeks to find work

Fellows said the job situation is discouraging, but that she is trying to stay positive. She also said she has a lot less to worry about than those receiving unemployment benefits that are about to run out.

Growth on the horizon

So far in Whatcom County, approximately 500 people have seen their benefits exhausted and that number will soon increase to 600, according to C.J. Seitz, Northwest area director for the state’s Employment Security Department.

But there is light creeping in through a small crack at the end of the tunnel. Vleming said he thinks the unemployment rate will continue to decline. In April, Whatcom County gained 300 jobs. It was the biggest month-over-month gain since around November of 2008, Vleming said. That growth will likely continue through summer, especially in the construction, retail-trade and hospitality industries, which are seeing relatively significant growth.

The momentum won’t be everlasting though, and will likely peter out at the beginning of winter, he said.

“I think the hiring frenzy is probably going to be on hold for awhile,” Vleming said. “I think we will probably see some conservative growth, but at least its growth.”

Editor’s Note: This story is part one in a three-part series on unemployment in Whatcom County by reporters Ryan Wynne and Isaac Bonnell.

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