Top employers list indicates stable, recovering county economy

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

Once again, the hospital has taken first place. At least in terms of employment.

The Western Washington University Center of Economic and Business Research has released its list of the top employers in Whatcom County for 2016.

At the top are a mix of for-profit companies, government and public employers and other industries.

St. Joseph Hospital once again tops the list, with 2,126 full-time employees.

Second place is the Lummi Nation, which is up from ninth place in 2015 — because this year the center combined all Lummi employees (including those at Silver Reef Casino) as one employer.

Third place is Western Washington University, followed by Bellingham Public Schools, the county government and BP Cherry Point in sixth place, with 820 employees.

“The list, to us, looks like a well-diversified economy with no one predominate sector showing up across the top employer lists, which is good,” James McCafferty, director of the center, said.

For a county this size, the mix of public and private employers at the top is about average.

The center also puts out a list for Skagit County, and McCafferty said it has about the same diversity in sectors.

Overall, McCafferty said that the fact that the list hasn’t changed much year to year is an encouraging sign for employees.

“What you have is a real stable base of major employers, which will allow employees a certain amount of stability,” he said.

That means employees can have the confidence that if they leave their job, they’ll be able to find a new without having to leave the area.

While this list is one good indicator of local employment trends, it isn’t a complete picture.

McCafferty said there are some trends in employment that aren’t captured on the list, which only track the largest companies, and tends to stay pretty consistent every year.

“There’s a lot of change in the overall employer list,” he said.

Even if that change isn’t occurring at the top of the list, new companies are opening all the time.

Putting the list together is a tremendous effort each year for the center.

Researchers reach out to every top company and ask them to self-report their employment.

Inevitably, someone gets left off, someone reports an error after the list is published.

The list published here is the most recently updated version.

The center asks for the number of full-time employees, plus the total headcount that is employed there.

“We ask for that as a way to see how employment is changing,” James McCafferty, said.

A lot of employers come back with only one number.

Fred Meyer, for example, doesn’t even track how many full-time employees it has, it only offers a headcount.

The difference in the numbers reported by St. Joseph Hospital this year compared to last year is also due to a change in how the track full time employees versus total headcount — not a huge change in how many people actually work there.

Haggen, too, has had a huge fluctuation in the number of employees it has reported, after the company filed for bankruptcy and then was bought by Albertsons.

“That’s not really a change in our employment base,” McCafferty said.

The researchers have noticed, however, that the number of full-time employees is going up faster than the total headcount.

That could mean companies are giving existing employees more hours, which is an encouraging sign of an improving economy.

“We’ve added more hours than the numbers might indicate,” McCafferty said.

Researchers at the center have noticed this improvement through all industries.

“We’re expanding, and that expansion is occurring in multiple sectors,” McCafferty said.

“Having a good stable base of employment is good.”

That can lead to growth, innovation, and even drawing new companies in.

“Those are all good things.”

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