Jobs Report: Modest local gains as spring begins

Whatcom County’s unemployment rate shrank in March, but with new local hires growing at about the same rate they did the previous month, the latest jobs data brought few surprises, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.

“For the most part, we’ve got a repeat of last month,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist.

The county’s initial unemployment rate in March was estimated at 7.1 percent, down from 7.5 percent in March 2013, and also below a 7.5 percent revised jobless estimate from February of this year.

Month-to-month change in the local jobless rate and total nonfarm employment in March followed similar trends seen in 2013 and 2012.

Private sector employers in Whatcom County added 1,100 jobs in March 2014 compared to March 2013, including a gain of 300 jobs between February and March of this year. All total, 84,900 people were working in Whatcom County in March, according to the Employment Security Department’s data.

Local industries with the largest year-over-year job gains in March included professional and business services (200 new jobs, including 100 added between February and March), retail trade (100 jobs) and financial activities (100 jobs).

Employment in the trade, transportation and utilities sector decreased by 3.9 percent year-over-year, dropping about 600 jobs between March 2013 and March 2014. That includes a loss of 200 jobs between February and March 2014.

Manufacturing jobs also fell locally. Whatcom County lost about 200 of them in March compared to the same month last year, according to the Employment Security Department.

Vance-Sherman said the diversity of Washington state’s manufacturing industry makes it difficult to develop a clear understanding of its county-level job trends.

Statewide, close to 3,000 jobs in aerospace manufacturing were lost between March 2013 and March 2014, according to state estimates.

At the same time, other manufacturing sectors saw gains, including fabricated metal producers (1,500 new jobs statewide in March 2014 compared to the same month last year) and food manufacturers (800 new jobs).

“Manufacturing is a very mixed story right now,” Vance-Sherman said.

Back in Whatcom County, new hiring in local construction was muted in March compared to larger gains seen in February, according to Employment Security Department data. The sector added about 100 new jobs between February and March, but no year-to-year gains were estimated by labor economists.

Construction hiring has grown locally over the past several years. Professionals in the building industry attribute the increase to improved economic development conditions and renewed confidence from financiers.

Liz Evans, the Bellingham-based northern district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, said the growing demand for construction workers is a trend playing out nationally, particularly in urban cores.

A variety of new development is boosting hiring in Whatcom County, Evans said, including new industry and infrastructure improvements at Cherry Point, new hotel construction in Bellingham, and more starts on mixed-use buildings.

“We are definitely seeing growth in our industry,” she said. “People are able to borrow money, so projects are coming online.”

Brian A. Evans (no relation to Liz Evans), executive officer of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, said local residential builders are seeing more demand for remodels and new construction projects, largely thanks to an improving real-estate market.

A renewed willingness from banks to lend money to construction projects has fueled new demand for jobs in the industry, he said. Favorable interest rates for home loans also help.

“That’s what’s really driving this, the ability to get money to build,” he said.

Whatcom County had one of the lowest unemployment rates in northwest Washington in March, according to the latest estimates. San Juan County outpaced all others in the region, with a jobless rate at 6.2 percent.

Skagit County’s unemployment was estimated at 8.1 percent. Island County’s jobless rate estimate was 7.6 percent.

King County has the lowest jobless estimate in Washington state in March, at 5.2 percent. Snohomish County posted 6 percent unemployment.

Ferry County in northeastern Washington had the state’s highest jobless rate, at 12.8 percent.

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

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