A long-held impression in Whatcom County is that wages here are lower than those in other parts of the country.
The real answer is much more complicated.
On the surface, economic data suggests workers are being paid less in Whatcom County. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the average hourly wage in Whatcom County was $21.08 in May 2013, nearly 6 percent lower than the national average of $22.33 an hour.
Other BLS reports consistently rank Whatcom County ninth highest out of the 10 largest Washington metro areas in terms of average weekly wages.
The overall average wage is different than comparing whether a specific occupation or job pays more or less compared to another community. When it comes to occupations, Whatcom County workers can do well compared to the rest of the nation in some areas, and not so well in others.
"I think one thing that is easy to see with the survey data sorted by occupation is why different people have such different opinions abut the strength of the economy here," said Hart Hodges, director of Western Washington University's Center for Economic and Business Research. "If a lawyer in Bellingham is talking to lawyers elsewhere, he or she might feel underpaid and complain about the lack of economic growth, the cost of living, etc. A construction worker here might know what they would earn elsewhere and feel pretty lucky about living and working here."
The average hourly wage for the legal profession in Whatcom County is $35.52, well below the national average of $47.89.
Farming, fishing and forestry occupations in Whatcom County do quite a bit better than the national average: The average hourly wage in those occupations in Whatcom County is $17.86, 53 percent more than the national average of $11.70.
Construction workers in Whatcom County averaged $23.67 an hour in May 2013, 8 percent more than the national average.
The lower average wage for those in Whatcom County's legal profession doesn't come as a surprise to Tom Lester, a local attorney who specializes in helping clients with bankruptcies. He said a variety of factors are at play, including competition. Many attorneys want to get out of the rat race often seen in bigger cities, he said, so this area has a lot of smaller practices competing for a limited amount of work.
"In the big city, you don't have a choice but to work a huge amount of hours in order to survive," Lester said, adding that Whatcom County attorneys he's talked to stay here mainly because they enjoy this area's quality of life.
That's not to say Bellingham doesn't have good attorneys, he said, noting that he thinks attorneys can do a better job with cases if they aren't overwhelmed by long hours.
"In Whatcom County you are creating a lifestyle you enjoy, so you do a better job if you're not working 80 hours a week," he said.
Many factors also could be in play when it comes to the wages in the farming, fishing and forestry occupations in Whatcom County. Charles Antholt, a WWU professor with more than 30 years experience in international agriculture, said labor demand could be one factor. This area has a large amount of berries that need to be harvested in a matter of weeks, so farmers are bidding against each other to make sure they have enough workers in the field. Also, commercial fishing and forestry can pay well, bumping up the average compared to other areas in the U.S. that don't have those jobs.
Hodges said the job mix within an occupation also could have an impact on the average wage. In the legal occupation, for example, Whatcom County may not have as many high-paying positions such as corporate litigation.
That job mix is a factor in many other occupations: If a company is headquartered in Whatcom County, office workers possibly would be paid more than similar workers at a branch office.
Drilling down to the level where economists can compare a specific job in Bellingham to the same one in other communities is difficult. In his experience, Hodges would expect many specific jobs in Bellingham to pay less than the same work done in Seattle. Reasons could include higher expenses for living in or commuting to Seattle, or situations where people are willing to take less pay in order to stay in Whatcom County.
WHATCOM COMPARED TO SIMILAR COMMUNITIES
Whatcom County wages look fairly normal compared to some similar-size college communities across the U.S.
With an average annual salary of $43,840, Whatcom County ranks behind Santa Cruz, Calif. and Burlington, Vt., but ahead of Missoula Mont. and Flagstaff, Ariz. Those communities have a similar-size workforce, university enrollment or job market attributes.
Salaries can vary significantly based on different jobs, even among similar communities. The average annual salary for a graphic designer in Bellingham was $37,460 in May 2013, but in Santa Cruz the average was $53,960.
The average annual salary for a waiter in Bellingham was $27,130, better than Santa Cruz's average of $22,790.
Santa Cruz County is an interesting case when it comes to comparing wages to Bellingham. Located on the coast about 20 miles from San Jose, the area has come out of the recession better than much of the U.S. when it comes to job growth and wages. At an average annual salary of $48,490, it's about 11 percent higher than Whatcom County.
The area's strong suit is having a diverse economy, said Joe Foster, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council.
Along with the benefits of being near Silicon Valley and its high-tech start-ups, Santa Cruz has companies in a variety of sectors, including tourism, manufacturing and agriculture. With a student enrollment of around 16,500, University of California Santa Cruz also plays a big role in the county, which has a population of around 265,000.
Santa Cruz has one huge challenge, however: affordable housing. According to an April 25 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the median price for homes sold in March was $662,750. Of the 514 listings in the first week of April, according to the article, only 223 were under $1 million. It's led to a situation where people are commuting to Silicon Valley for a chance to afford a home in Santa Cruz, Foster said.
Whatcom County's median price for homes sold in March 2014: $239,950.
Even within Whatcom County, the BLS data shows jobs have interesting salary variations. The average annual salary for a preschool teacher is $28,440, while teachers from kindergarten through high school, with their different education requirements, have average salaries between $56,000 and $60,000.
The average annual salary for chef/head cook is $55,820, while a line cook averages $24,070.
With so many factors going into determining wages, Hodges cautions against trying to do too much as a community to boost wages because of the unintended consequences.
"Something I'm against is trying to pick winners," Hodges said. "But (as a community) you can make this a place where employers want to be."