Spokane Journal of Business

Job growth picks up here

Monthly totals of people working here average 4,000 higher year-to-date to surpass 1999 jump of 1,600

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The Spokane-area economy has been adding jobs at a much faster pace so far this year than it did during 1999.

Through the first half of the year, an average of nearly 4,000 more people were employed here than in the year-earlier months, according to Washington state Department of Employment Security estimates. Thats up sharply from the average monthly increase of just under 1,600 workers during the first six months of 1999.

It looks like the economy here has turned the corner, Randy Barcus, chief economist at Spokane-based Avista Corp., says of the improved numbers. I think the business community should look at this as some pretty good news.

The figures come from a survey the state conducts to estimate the number of nonagricultural wage and salary workers employed in the Spokane area. That survey is the best indicator of the health of the local economy, Barcus says. Business is pretty good right now in just about every sector, except residential housingand housing lags (behind) employment. We had a dearth in employment growth last year. I would think that this will catch the eye of the homebuilding community and the bankers that finance them.

In a dismal performance in 1999, the Spokane-area economy employed an annual average of just 1,700 more workers than in 1998for employment growth of an anemic 0.9 percent. That poor showing came after job growth of 1.8 percent in 1998.

In the first six months of 2000, the rate of year-to-year monthly job growth ranged from a low of 1.5 percent in January to a high of 2.6 percent in May.

In June, a total of 196,600 nonagricultural wage and salary workersor 2.2 percent more than in June 1999were employed in the Spokane area. The total for June this year is a preliminary number, although the state already had revised the monthly totals for January through May.

The improvement is somewhat surprising in that the state Office of Financial Management had estimated Spokane Countys population growth at just 500with the population growing to 415,000 from 414,500in the year ended March 31, says Phil Kuharski, a retired Spokane securities executive and long-time economic observer. Theres a high correlation between population growth and job growth, he says.

Kuharski cautions that because employment growth was weak in the first half of 1999, a comparison with this years numbers is a little bit biased. Still, he says, I would guess that things may hold up in the second half, and we may end up with a pretty good employment gain.

In the first six months, employment growth was particularly strong in two sectors, says Kuharski.

One of those sectorsbusiness servicesemployed 1,100 more people in June than in the year-earlier month, apparently due to growth among technology-oriented companies, Kuharski says.

Meanwhile, he says, retail tradethe other sector that shows marked improvementemployed 1,500 more people in June than a year earlier, thanks partly to the opening of the first phase of the renovated River Park Square project downtown late last summer.

Fred Walsh, the state labor market analyst here, says stepped-up retail operations across Spokane County helped account for the growth in retail-sector employment. Also, he says, the economy here has been helped along this year in that seasonal changes, such as weather-related changes in job patterns, have fallen well within the norm.

It hasnt been too bad, Walsh says of the first half of this year. For the rest of the year, he says, My expectations are about the same. I dont see anything really good or really bad.

Walsh is encouraged in that the Spokane-area economy has continued to grow modestly even though a boom in housing construction ended a few years ago. Thats good for us, compared with whats happened in the past when housing has fallen off, he says.

Walsh says hed like to see a better mix of jobs, especially including more good-paying jobs. Basically, were service, trade, and government, he says. Perhaps biotechnology, which has been touted by economic-development leaders as a potential contributor to the Spokane-area economy, or some other growing industry will provide better jobs, Walsh says.

  • Richard Ripley

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