Whatcom’s unemployment rate is on the rise, but is that a bad sign for job market?

Here are the top 10 employers in Whatcom County

Here are the top 10 employers in Whatcom County, according to information compiled by the Center for Business Research at Western Washington University.
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Here are the top 10 employers in Whatcom County, according to information compiled by the Center for Business Research at Western Washington University.

Whatcom’s unemployment rate is on the rise, but it appears to be a sign that a healthy job market is attracting workers to this area.

The local jobless rate was estimated to be 5.4% in July, up slightly from June according to the state’s Employment Security Department. It’s the highest July rate since 2016.

The unemployment rate has risen at the same time jobs are being added to the local economy. Whatcom County had an estimated 94,600 people employed in nonfarm jobs last month, up 800 from a year ago and up 3,400 compared to July 2017.

Taking a deeper look at the data, it appears the trend of more people moving into Whatcom County is contributing to a rise in workers and unemployment. Whatcom’s population increase has been above the national average in recent years, while the local job participation rate has not changed much during the same period, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state.

Hart Hodges agreed, saying more people seem to be moving here with a belief they can find work. Hodges is the co-director at the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

“People are willing to change jobs and consumers are spending money,” Hodges said in an email.

Another sign the local job market is relatively healthy can be found in a new federal report on wages. The average Whatcom weekly wage during the first quarter was $958, a 3.7% increase compared to a year earlier. That’s better than the national average increase of 2.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Recession coming, or something else?

It’s also possible a more structural change is taking place, said James McCafferty, also a director at CEBR. He noted that when you ask about the local job market, the answer more often depends on who you are asking.

“Some employers would say the job market is not great — they are struggling to find what they need. Some applicants say it is not great, they cannot find what they want. Others would say the exact opposite,” McCafferty said in an email.

He sees the job market as one that will be in transition for the coming decade, as this area finds a new balance between labor supply and job demand. This is part of the overall trend of jobs changing or going away with automation and other advancements taking place.

While national economists are speculating the risk of recession in the coming year is rising, so far the Whatcom job market numbers don’t show it. Looking back at historical data, Vance-Sherman said a significant rise in the labor force, similar to what’s happening now, does tend to happen before a recession. However in the past, the workforce growth tends to taper off before falling into negative territory.

“On a percentage basis, the (current) growth is similar to the buildup Whatcom County often has experienced during times of economic health,” Vance-Sherman said in an email.

Hodges added that there are two distinct narratives happening right now. One is that labor market is strong and the consumer is confident.

“The other narrative is one of global weakness, uncertainty and debt. That’s the foundation for recession fears,” Hodges said.

In the coming months Vance-Sherman expects Whatcom County to follow the usual seasonal rhythm, where the unemployment rate drops to its lowest level of the year.

“The unemployment rates in September and October should be lower than the current rate, but not necessarily lower than this time last year,” she said.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.