While the hospital and government dominate the top of the Whatcom County largest employer list, a new report shows the area also has a decent mix of for-profit, private sector companies.
The Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University released its 2016 list of 50 largest Whatcom County employers. St. Joseph hospital, with an estimated 2,126 full-time equivalent workers, tops the list, followed by Lummi Nation (1,780 total workers), Western Washington University (1,499 full-time equivalent workers) and Bellingham Public Schools (987 full-time equivalent workers).
The largest private sector, for-profit company was BP’s Cherry Point refinery with an estimated 820 employees, followed by Fred Meyer (778 total employees), Haggen (751) and Zodiac Aerospace (607).
Putting together a list of largest employers is trickier than one might expect, said James McCafferty, co-director at CEBR. For this list the center tried to use full-time equivalent employee numbers where it could, but went with total number of employees if that was the only data available. In large companies and agencies there can be plenty of situations of a person switching between part-time and full-time work in a given year. The list only counts the number of people employed in Whatcom County and not all companies contacted agreed to release employment numbers.
The list looks a bit different compared to recent years, partly because of changes to how the data was collected. Lummi Nation moved up seven spots compared to the previous year because researchers decided to include all tribal operations. In previous years the list only counted certain business operations, such as the Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa. Other jobs in areas such as education were added to better show the overall impact, McCafferty said.
Western Washington University dropped from No. 2 on the list in 2015 to third last year.
Haggen was a big mover, going from 25th in 2015 to ninth last year. In 2015 the grocer was in a state of flux as it was going through its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and eventual sale to Albertsons, making it difficult to determine the number of full-time workers.
What does this list say about Whatcom’s economy?
Having a hospital, government, and school districts near the top of the list is fairly typical for a population area like Whatcom County, McCafferty said. The government entities are included on the list to show the impact on the overall economy, he said.
As for the for-profit, private-sector companies, Whatcom County is somewhat diverse when compared to other similar-sized communities. Industries represented in the top 50 largest Whatcom employers that tend to pay higher wages include two refineries, an aluminum smelter, engineering firms and several construction companies. That’s mixed in with a variety of companies that offer more entry-level salaries.
“It’s an interesting balancing act between the two in a community,” McCafferty said, referring to high-paying and entry-level salaries. “There’s no way to force much of a change between them, because there are so many factors involved.”
He added that with this data the center is also looking at whether these jobs are stable, which can give insight on the overall economy.
Given the dramatic changes this year on the national retail scene as companies adjust to the rising popularity of online shopping, McCafferty expects to see a bit of re-balancing in the local economy when it comes to the retail sector. It could mean a pullback among national retailers, but also a resurgence in niche retailers that offer unique products or put a high focus on customer service.
A look at the top 10 employers in Whatcom County in 2016 based on number of full-time equivalent employees (FTE). For a look at the top 50, visit Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research website:
1. St. Joseph hospital
2. Lummi Nation
3. Western Washington University
4. Bellingham Public Schools
5. Whatcom County
6. BP refinery at Cherry Point*
7. City of Bellingham
8. Fred Meyer
10. Zodiac Aerospace
* estimate based on prior years