Whatcom unemployment rate drops with job growth in construction, transportation

A jump in job growth has knocked Whatcom County’s unemployment rate to its lowest level in more than six years.

The local unemployment rate was 5.9 percent, the lowest rate since December 2008, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department. The agency originally reported Whatcom’s unemployment rate below 6 percent last fall but recently revised those numbers upward.

Whatcom County employers were steadily hiring in March, particularly those in construction. According to the data, 99,370 Whatcom County residents were employed last month, up 4,170 people in the past year and the highest monthly total since March 2009.

In construction, Whatcom County employed 6,600 people last month, up 700 people compared to February and up 600 compared to a year ago.

Local job growth took place almost across the board in the past 12 months, including in transportation (up 800 people), professional services (up 500), retail (up 400) and manufacturing (up 400).

A couple factors appear to be involved in the construction growth. The relatively mild winter has allowed work to get started earlier than usual, including several big apartment projects. Construction growth also tends to outpace many other industries coming out of a recession, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state.

At this point in the economic recovery, construction lending increases and projects that were postponed during the economic downturn are now moving forward, she said.

In Bellingham, this seems to be the case for apartment construction. From December through March, $27.6 million in multi-family residential projects were issued permits, way up from the $4.2 million permitted during the same period a year earlier, according to data from the city of Bellingham.

One challenge going forward is finding qualified construction workers. Vance-Sherman noted that in Whatcom County and across the state, one in three construction jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2010. During this slow recovery period, many of those workers who lost jobs either moved out of the area or chose a different career. If finding construction workers remains tough, that could translate into wage growth in the industry.

Last month 6,190 local residents were actively seeking work, the lowest level since June 2014. The only industry that lost jobs locally last month was leisure and hospitality. Since that industry continues to grow in other parts of the state, Vance-Sherman pointed to the weakening Canadian dollar and the decline in cross-border traffic as big factors.

In the public sector, state government added 700 jobs in Whatcom County compared to a year ago. Vance-Sherman said in Whatcom County that category is dominated by public education, which is where she suspects much of the growth has taken place.

King County continued to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state, coming in at 4.1 percent. Snohomish was at 4.5 percent last month, while Skagit was at 7 percent. The highest unemployment rate in the state was in Ferry County, at 11.4 percent. The state rate was 5.9 percent.