Whatcom County's January unemployment rate below 7 percent

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 13, 2014 

Whatcom County recorded its lowest January unemployment rate in six years, but part of that has to do with a shrinking workforce.

The January unemployment rate locally was 6.9 percent, the lowest since 2008, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department. That's up from December's revised rate of 6.2 percent but down significantly compared to the January 2013 rate of 8.3 percent.

January and February tend to have the highest local unemployment rates for the year, but the most recent rate is already lower than in five months of 2013 and nine months of 2012.

This area's workforce - people working or actively looking for work - in the first month of this year was estimated at 103,310, down 650 people compared to January 2013.

The total number of Whatcom County residents employed in January was 96,200, up 850 compared to a year earlier, while the number of people actively seeking employment totaled 7,110, down 1,500 from a year ago.

Several factors could be at play for the shrinking local workforce, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state. Retirement is probably the biggest component, she said, as more of the baby boomers reach retirement age. Long-term investment accounts have also stabilized or grown as the stock market hovers around record levels, creating more confidence in retirement income.

Other factors include working-age residents moving out of the area to seek employment or those who have become discouraged and have given up looking.

This is also the time of year when the Employment Security Department revises its statistics after getting more information from the year-end totals. The revised employment numbers indicate 84,300 Whatcom County residents were employed in the non-farm category, up 2,300 compared to a year earlier. That's about 700 more jobs than the agency had been estimating, with about 400 of those additional jobs in construction.

"We are now seeing that construction is coming back a little stronger than expected," Vance-Sherman said, adding that the number of jobs in the local construction industry is still well below pre-recession levels.

The Whatcom County job numbers are also revised from earlier this week. Vance-Sherman said an error was discovered in the formula that calculates the local numbers, resulting in a false report of higher-than-expected job growth. It was an issue that was fixed and only impacted Whatcom County.

Year over year, the private sector experienced significant growth, adding 2,100 jobs in the past year. Construction had one of the bigger jumps, adding 600 more people compared to a year earlier. Other industries posting increases include retail (up by 400 people) and professional services (up 400).

Whatcom's unemployment rate in January was among the lowest in the state. King County was lowest, at 5.2 percent, while Snohomish County came in at 6 percent. Skagit was at 8.4 percent.

Ferry County had the highest unemployment rate in the state, at 12.9 percent.

The state rate, not seasonally adjusted, was 6.9 percent in January.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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