Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: More employers should join job market conversations

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It’s hard to complain about a labor market in which Spokane is enjoying steady increases in the number of jobs and historically low unemployment rates.

But a persistent concern in the current economy is that many employers are struggling to find workers to fill open positions, tethering their ability to expand and flourish. Business owners and managers should get involved now in community discussions, of which there are many, to address current and future skills gaps and labor shortages.

Such worries become more exacerbated for some by Amazon.com’s plans to ramp up hiring in coming months as it prepares to open its massive new fulfillment center on the West Plains. The company has said it plans to have about 1,500 people working at the facility, which would almost immediately make it one of the largest private employers in the Spokane area.

That’s a good thing, of course, the kind of activity economic development advocates strive to bring to the Inland Northwest. But labor shortage is one of a handful of challenges that could impede growth and expansion of the Spokane business community in the near future. Others include post-Initiative 976 infrastructure funding challenges, housing affordability and homelessness, and potentially water issues. We’ll address those other issues in future editorials. For now, let’s talk jobs.

As referenced, Spokane has enjoyed employment growth during the current, prolonged period of national economic expansion. Most recent numbers from the Washington state Employment Security Department place the jobless rate in Spokane County at 5%, down compared with rates of 5.7% during the previous two Decembers.

Total employment in the county grew to about 250,500 people in December, up 2,400 jobs from November and 12,000 more jobs than December 2018. Between 2011 and 2014, average annual employment in the county languished between 208,500 and 209,500.

In today’s environment, demand for workers is broad based. According to data from Eastern Washington University Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis, annual projected growth in certain occupations far outstrips output of Washington’s public four-year institutions. The fastest growing occupation requiring a four-year degree in Spokane, for example, is registered nurses, with projected average annual openings of just over 450 positions.

Many of the fastest-growing occupations don’t require a degree – food-service workers and farm workers among them – and filling those positions could provide their own sets of challenges, as do the well-documented concerns of the construction trades and manufacturers that have struggled to find skilled labor in the years since the Great Recession.

In response to labor-shortage concerns, a number of groups have started conversations about the best paths to address workforce gaps, where they exist. The Journal will host its Workforce Summit April 22, gathering educators, employers, and others, but we are hardly the only ones spurring conversations on the subject. Employers who are feeling the pressures of the current labor markets should seek out such conversations and become a part of them. The more people who are involved, the more likely we are to find viable solutions.

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