Flat wages raises questions for economic growth in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 6, 2013 

After a brief boost last spring, Whatcom County wages in the third quarter of 2012 dropped back to levels equal to the previous year.

The average weekly wage in Whatcom County was $758 between July and September, down from $777 in the previous quarter, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whatcom's weekly wage ranked 253rd highest out of the 328 largest counties in the U.S. In Washington state, Whatcom's weekly wage ranked 13th highest out of 39 counties.

King County ranks the highest in the state and 10th highest in the U.S., averaging $1,354 a week. King County's weekly wage grew 2.3 percent in the past year, the fourth-highest percentage wage increase in the country.

The boost in wages in the second quarter of 2012 came at a time when BP Cherry Point was busy doing repair work to get the facility fully operating again after a fire. More than 3,000 contract workers were on site at various times during that quarter, potentially boosting the wage average.

This trend of flat wages in Whatcom County while growth takes place in the Seattle area bears watching, said Hart Hodges, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

"Coming out of the recession, we have done well with some employment growth with companies like Heath Tecna, BP and Logos," Hodges said. While noting that the latest wage numbers are a small sample, he said it invites some interesting questions for 2013. "We had some growth, now the question becomes what's next."

The growth in Seattle-area wages can be partially attributed to the growth it has experienced in the professional services sector, which has jobs that include engineers, architects and accountants. That has not been the case in Whatcom County: In March 2013, the Employment Security Department estimates 6,800 people were employed locally in the professional services sector, down 900 from five years ago.

Whatcom County appears to be one of those counties that has too big a population base to be considered rural, but not big enough to be considered urban, so it's unclear if this area has the critical mass to significantly grow the professional services sector, according to Hodges. What may need to be done is to nurture the companies that are growing in this area and try to keep them here.

Several nearby counties had a lower average weekly wage in the third quarter, including Skagit ($745 a week), Island ($675) and San Juan ($598). Snohomish County was significantly higher, at $996 a week.

Year-over-year, average weekly wages declined in 274 of the 328 largest U.S. counties. Santa Clara, Calif., held the top position among the highest-paid large counties at $1,800 a week, while Horry County, S.C., had the lowest weekly wage at $554.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his business blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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