Local

Construction job growth booming in Whatcom County

Dawson Construction employees work on a new apartment building near Depot Market Square on Tuesday, June 30, in Bellingham, Washington. Whatcom County ranked second in the nation for growth in construction jobs in May.
Dawson Construction employees work on a new apartment building near Depot Market Square on Tuesday, June 30, in Bellingham, Washington. Whatcom County ranked second in the nation for growth in construction jobs in May. The Bellingham Herald

With plenty of residential and hotel projects this spring, Whatcom County ranked second in the nation when it came to growth in construction jobs in May.

The county had 6,900 people employed in the construction industry in May, up 23 percent compared to a year ago. That percentage growth was the second highest among 358 metro areas, trailing only Wenatchee, according to a report from the Associated General Contractors of America.

The Wenatchee metro area employed 2,600 people in construction in May, up 30 percent compared to a year earlier.

A look at building permits issued last winter and early spring indicate apartment construction is behind much of the growth. In Bellingham, building permits were issued for 239 multi-family units in the fourth quarter of 2014, with 182 of those units being issued in December, according to city statistics. Another 66 units were approved in March, ahead of the spring construction season and the hiring of workers.

Construction job growth is strong across much of the state, said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state. In Washington, the largest growth is taking place among specialty trade contractors, which includes roofers and plumbers.

While the breakdown of specific construction jobs for Whatcom County isn’t available, Vance-Sherman said specialty trade contractors are the largest employer within the local construction industry.

Vance-Sherman said construction tends to amplify whatever else is occurring in the rest of the economy. Construction tends to wane during economic uncertainty, but quickly builds once consumer and business confidence rises.

“That is where we are at the moment,” she said.

One reason Whatcom County is having such a strong rebound in construction compared to other metro areas is because it lost a large number of construction jobs during the recession. One in three construction jobs were lost from the pre-recession peak to the depth of the economic downturn locally, Vance-Sherman said.

Even with the rebound, Whatcom County is still a far cry from the pre-recession construction employment level of around 8,000.

“Construction projects are on the rise, but the workforce is only a fraction of what it was, leading to a high demand for construction workers,” Vance-Sherman said.

Apartment units are in high demand locally, contributing to the wave of new construction projects. In a survey done last fall, Whatcom County had an apartment vacancy rate of 1.3 percent, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. The overall state apartment vacancy rate was 3.6 percent.

The low vacancy rate in Whatcom County has led to a steady rise in rental rates. According to the study, the average rent for an apartment in Whatcom County was $846 a month last fall, up from $822 in the fall of 2013.

Building hotels also has contributed to construction job growth in the first half of 2015. Work is finishing up for the 99-room Oxford Suites at 4051 Meridian St., and ground-breaking recently took place for the 153-room Holiday Inn near Bellingham International Airport.

Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa is also working on a hotel expansion project, adding 100 rooms. That project is expected to be completed later this year.

Reach Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com.

  Comments