June 22, 2008 in Opinion

Hope for economy

The Spokesman-Review
 

Randy Barcus has done economic forecasts for 35 years now. When the Avista Corp. economist crunches numbers, he focuses on business cycles. They always go up and down. But he’s learned over the years that human beings reside within unemployment statistics. “I’m much more sensitive now to people who lose their jobs,” he said.

The news this week that Spokane County’s May unemployment rates climbed to 5.3 percent means more people are out of work than a year ago. The news certainly discouraged the unemployed, but not necessarily the economic forecasters. They understand the bigger picture. Higher unemployment numbers alone do not reflect our region’s economic condition, nor predict its future. Consider:

“A few years ago, Spokane County would have celebrated a 5.3 percent rate.

Barcus looked back over 15 years of average, annual unemployment figures in Spokane County. They rarely dipped below 5 percent. In 2002 and 2003, when the region’s economy stalled after the dot-com bust and Sept. 11, the rates increased to 7.7 percent and 7.6 percent. May’s jump follows two years of low unemployment as the county experienced a boom, which has indeed slowed but not to the same degree as in 2002 and 2003.

“Economic diversification provides a buffer here.

Barcus’ counterparts in Detroit and Las Vegas lament the dire economic conditions in their cities. Detroit relies on the automotive industry. Las Vegas depends on tourism. Spokane is not tethered to one major industry. Software companies thrive here alongside manufacturing, tourism, health care and small businesses.

“We don’t have the rapid run ups, so we don’t have the (rapid) fall downs,” Barcus reminded.

“Companies are still worried about baby-boomer retirements.

When unemployment rates reached record lows in recent years, labor shortages followed. Companies brainstormed ways to be ready for increased labor woes when the boomers start retiring. These brainstorming sessions continue. Doctors, nurses and engineers, as well as plumbers and electricians, will be in great demand. CFO.com reports that Fortune 500 companies will lose half of their senior managers in the next five years and have far fewer people to replace them.

The bottom line? Individuals can feel powerless when they are unemployed in slower economic times. Retraining and education is one way to catch jobs when unemployment figures revive. And they will. That’s the encouraging reality residing within this week’s discouraging statistics.


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