Spokane Journal of Business

Study: Pacific Northwest business leaders positive, but worried about future

WSU report shows labor needs remain a concern

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Pacific Northwest business leaders are upbeat about current business conditions, but many are concerned about the prospects for future growth. 

That’s according to the Business in the Northwest 2018 study recently released by Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. The report is aimed at providing new insight into the attitudes of businesspeople regionally.

Larry “Chip” Hunter, Pullman-based Carson College of Business dean, says the report’s findings are based on the results of a survey, commissioned by the business college through New-York-based research and analytics firm Edelman Intelligence.

The survey, which was conducted Feb. 7 through March 16, polled 1,000 business leaders living in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Western Montana, Northern California, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Respondents were at least 18 years old, occupying an upper management-level position, and having at least three years of management experience.

While most respondents reported the Pacific Northwest region is poised to take advantage of positive factors fueling economic prosperity, Hunter says many were also uncertain about the future growth potential of business in the region.

 “The consensus is that most feel the climate is changing in a good way and they’re reaching their goals. However, there’s also a set of leaders who are concerned about future growth potential and the ability to create jobs,” Hunter says.

Within the survey, nine in 10 regional business leaders reported the climate has been steady or strengthening in the last three years. However, almost half of respondents (47 percent) indicated they’re worried about the overall growth potential of business in the region.

Of Washington state respondents, 48 percent said they felt the business climate has been strengthening steadily, and 82 percent said they felt it was changing in a good way. Of Idaho respondents, 60 percent felt the business climate has been strengthening steadily, with 86 percent responding they felt those changes have been positive.

Despite those responses, 43 percent of Washington respondents indicated they were worried about the growth potential for regional businesses, and 32 percent reported being concerned their company may have to downsize in the next year.

Idaho respondents reported similar concerns, with 40 percent saying they’re worried about growth potential, and 26 percent indicating they’re worried their company may have to downsize in the next year. 

“One thing that doesn’t come through in the survey is that we’re currently operating in a boom economy,” Hunter says. “But company leaders know that markets change quickly and what they’re doing now won’t necessarily work in the next five or 10 years. So, they’re looking for who’s going to lead them into new opportunities and navigate changes or challenges ahead.”

Looking ahead can be a challenge, especially given that most of the business leaders in the survey—72 percent—reported their companies are ready to create jobs, but 60 percent reported they’re struggling to find qualified undergraduates from area universities when hiring.

“The ability to find, develop, and retain a talented workforce is a big piece,” says Hunter. “Companies know that if they can’t staff up and deliver what they need to in order to meet goals, they’re going to face challenges.”

While 76 percent of survey respondents said they’re already partnering with a local university or college to identify candidates, 27 percent said they could be doing more to develop internship programs, and 24 percent said they could be doing more to ensure students develop the right skill sets. 

For both Washington and Idaho, about 30 percent of respondents said their companies are already collaborating with area universities to identify potential employees, or develop skill sets and internship programs, but could potentially be doing more.

 “It’s not that graduates aren’t ready. The question seems to be, are there enough of them to fill open positions,” asks Hunter. “This region has a number of universities, yet 60 percent of companies can’t find people to fill jobs.” 

Among Washington and Idaho respondents, however, the vast majority—89 percent and 81 percent, respectively—indicated they’re highly satisfied with their company’s ability to keep up with filling positions and attracting talent.

Only 17 percent of Washington respondents, and 38 percent of Idaho respondents said they wished their company would do more to collaborate with community leaders, organizations, and educational institutions to find qualified applicants.

When hiring, 12 percent of Washington respondents and 17 percent of Idaho respondents said it’s difficult for their companies to find qualified undergraduates from universities or colleges in the region. 

Hunter says one thing Pacific Northwest businesses can do to improve their workforce retention and recruitment is to look closely at the tools they’re using to attract employees, including work environment, competitive wages, and opportunities for growth.

Speaking from an educational perspective, Hunter says Pacific Northwest colleges need to continue to work closely with businesses on partnering for internships and preparing new graduates for understanding employers’ needs.

Hunter says the school created the report not only to learn more about the region’s current business climate, but also as a way of becoming more involved in the community.

He adds, “As a business college, we’re always looking to make sure the research we’re doing resonates in the community. When we know what these major issues of concern are, we can compare data and work together to find solutions and contribute to continued economic growth.”

When asked to consider what they feel the Pacific Northwest region will be “best known for” in the future, most business leaders who were surveyed indicated either marijuana products and merchandise (34 percent) or for being a good place to raise a family (30 percent).

Among the top things business leaders in Washington listed they feel the region will be “known” for in the future included a highly skilled cloud computing workforce (29 percent), marijuana products and merchandise (28 percent), and advanced technological development of artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and augmented or virtual reality (28 percent).

Idaho respondents list of top things they feel the region will be known for included a good place to start or raise a family (50 percent), marijuana products and merchandise (43 percent), and agriculture technology (40 percent). 

Hunter says the Carson College of Business plans to make its Business in the Northwest study an annual report that can be used as a tool for regional leaders as they plan how best to prepare for business and economic growth.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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