Whatcom County's March unemployment rate at 7.9 percent

Whatcom County’s jobless rate has dropped below 8 percent for the first time in 2013, as the Washington State Employment Security Department’s initial jobless estimate for March put local unemployment at 7.9 percent.

That is down from a revised rate of 8.4 percent in February of this year, and also down from an 8.1 percent jobless estimate from March 2012.

The number of people with jobs in Whatcom County increased by more 2,500 between February and March of this year. No industry sectors showed job losses in those month-to-month figures.

But between March 2012 and March 2013, the county lost about 1,700 jobs overall, according to Employment Security Department estimates. The county’s total labor force also shrunk by more than 2,100 between March 2012 and March 2013.

While job losses look concerning on paper, Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist, said the drop between March 2012 and March 2013 seems so far off recent trends that she expects a different picture to emerge as estimates are revised over the next several weeks. Vance-Sherman said that over the past two years, Whatcom County has shown consistent job growth when numbers from each month are compared with the previous year.

“If we take a longer view and look at the trends, it really is a positive and upward trend,” Vance-Sherman said.

The county’s construction sector, which the Employment Security Department combines with mining and logging industries in its regular reports, is showing notable variation in employment, according to the March figures. While the industry gained an estimated 400 jobs in March compared to the previous month, which puts its current job-count estimate at around 5,500, state economists believe Whatcom’s construction field has shed more than 15 percent of the workforce it supported one year ago.

Yet Vance-Sherman said that since construction work is heavily seasonal and contract-based, the industry’s volatility can make it difficult to establish definite employment trends.

Around northwest Washington, San Juan County had the lowest initial unemployment estimate in March, at 7.5 percent. Island County posted 8.3 percent, and Skagit County had a 9.3 percent jobless rate.

King County, the state’s population center, continues to hold Washington’s lowest unemployment rate, at 5.1 percent, followed by Snohomish County at 5.7 percent. Ferry County in the northeastern region of the state had the highest unemployment estimate at 14.2 percent.

The total jobless estimate in March for all of Washington, 7.3 percent, was at its lowest level since December 2008, according to the Employment Security Department. Since statewide estimates are adjusted to account for seasonal factors, economists say they should not be directly compared to county-level estimates, which are not adjusted due to their smaller sample sizes.

Evan Marczynski, lead reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com

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