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Making money in Whatcom County is complicated

Ridgeway Construction workers Dylan Sielicki, left, and Kyle Conard install windows at the Bakerview Family Housing project under construction on East Bakerview Road in Bellingham, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Whatcom County employs a higher percentage of people in construction, and pays higher than average, according to a new federal report.
Ridgeway Construction workers Dylan Sielicki, left, and Kyle Conard install windows at the Bakerview Family Housing project under construction on East Bakerview Road in Bellingham, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Whatcom County employs a higher percentage of people in construction, and pays higher than average, according to a new federal report. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

You can earn a higher-than-average wage in Whatcom County, but it depends on your career choice.

Workers in Whatcom County had an average hourly wage of $22.17 in May 2015, which was 5 percent below the national average, according to latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While wages were below the national average in several white-collar careers, workers earned wages above the national average in other categories, including manufacturing, health care, farming, food preparation and construction.

$27.61 average hourly wage in Whatcom in May 2015

$22.88average hourly wage in U.S. for the same period

The construction/extraction category – everything from carpenters and concrete finishers to painters and plumbers – not only paid significantly more than the U.S. average, it also represented a relatively high percentage of Whatcom County’s overall workforce.

The bureau estimated this region had 4,860 jobs in that category, representing 6 percent of total employment (the national average is 4 percent). The average hourly wage for those construction jobs was $27.61, significantly higher than the U.S. average of $22.88.

Whatcom’s average hourly wage for construction jobs was in the same ballpark as the Seattle metro area, which paid an average wage of $28.46.

Several factors could be in play when it comes to those higher-than-average construction wages, said Hart Hodges, director at Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research. The size of the firm and the type of work being done has an impact on wages. For example, several construction firms here work on highly specialized projects, including refinery maintenance and repair work. Bellingham is also a good launching point for Alaska projects, Hodges said.

History is also a factor. Several longtime families established their companies here, including Haskell Corporation and Dawson Construction, and were able to grow them into regional firms, handling bigger projects with in-demand skills that pay higher wages.

One aspect that doesn’t appear to be a factor is job concentration, said Matthew Insco of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Insco said several areas with some of the highest concentration of construction jobs paid below the national average.

The farming and fishing category in Whatcom County averaged $18.13 an hour, significantly higher than the national average. Commercial fishing, with access to a wide area from California to Alaska, might influence that category, Hodges said.

Other categories where Whatcom County wages were significantly higher than the national average included protective services, health care support and food preparation.

Wages shouldn’t be the only measure to gauge an overall economy, said James McCafferty, assistant director at WWU’s economic research center. Higher or lower wages can be offset by many other factors, including housing costs.

PLENTY OF CATEGORIES BELOW NATIONAL AVERAGE

Hourly wages for several big job categories in Whatcom were well below the national average, pulling down the overall number.

Management, which represented 4.1 percent of the Whatcom workforce, had an average hourly wage of $47.96 – 13 percent below the national average. Lawyers averaged $38.31 an hour locally, 23 percent below the national average. People in a variety of office jobs, including computer designers, architects, engineers and bankers, also made significantly less than the U.S. average.

Hodges sees a common link that brings those salaries down.

“Many of the high-paying jobs in those fields require larger populations,” he said.

The category with the highest percentage of Whatcom workers was office and administrative support, which represented 15 percent of total employment. It had an average wage just slightly above the national average of $17.47.

The next largest employment category in Whatcom was sales, at 11.2 percent. In Whatcom, the average sales job paid $16.78 an hour, 11 percent below the national average.

Food preparation represented 10.6 percent of Whatcom’s employment and paid an average of $12.57 an hour, 14 percent above the national mean.

HOW WHATCOM COMPARES TO NEARBY AREAS

Whatcom shared a lot of similarities with other metro areas in Washington not named Seattle. The overall hourly wage was is in the $22 to $24 range, with similar job categories like lawyers and management paying less than the national average, while construction jobs paid above the national average.

One outlier in Washington was Yakima, which had an hourly wage of $19.84, putting it 15 percent below the U.S. average.

In a previous report, Bellingham was similar to other areas across the U.S. that had a similar size workforce, such as Santa Cruz, Calif. and Flagstaff, Ariz.

“There are economic regularities that depend more on size than many other things. Like it or not, that explains a lot,” Hodges said. “It may be fair to say Bellingham has a lot of great qualities and feels special in a lot of ways. Still, we aren’t so unique and special in terms of economic factors.”

Tech-rich Seattle, as expected, had high wage averages compared to the rest of the state, as well as the nation. Its overall average hourly wage was $29.33, which was 26 percent above the U.S. average. Particularly high wages were in management ($62.54 an hour), computers ($52.09 an hour) and law ($52.03 an hour).

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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