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Work force to become younger

Sat., May 24, 2008, midnight

Employment growth in Spokane County may have slowed in recent months, but local economists and executives Friday forecast massive retirements over the next decade that will open up jobs in professions from mining to public administration, education to utilities, and agriculture to real estate.

Already, said Inland Northwest Health Services President Tom Fritz, it takes 44 days to fill a nursing position, up from 29 days last year. The national average is 60 days.

A pharmacist shortage, he said, has forced 16 rural hospitals in the area to rely on Sacred Heart Medical Center for prescriptions dispensed through machines. Without the service, the hospitals’ certification would be in jeopardy, Fritz said.

Avista Corp. economist Randy Barcus said half of the workers in electric and natural gas utilities will be eligible to retire over the next five years. Meanwhile, Avista and other utilities will be investing billions to upgrade and extend their systems, he said.

Fritz and Barcus spoke at an economic symposium sponsored by the Washington state Employment Security Department.

Doug Tweedy, the department’s labor market economist for Spokane, said that over the next 10 years Spokane will attract more of the younger, skilled workers who have been gravitating to the Puget Sound area.

He predicts the population of workers ages 30 to 45 will increase almost 30 percent in the next decade. The strength of the local economy will depend on their skills and their training.

“The region that matches jobs and jobs seekers wins,” said Tweedy, who noted wage growth since 1990 has been concentrated at the low and high end of the scale, with compensation for middle-class workers lagging.

Although Washington’s economy has outpaced that of the U.S., particularly in manufacturing, Labor Market and Economic Analysis Director Greg Weeks said trends in construction and home foreclosures more and more reflect those in states hard hit by the credit crisis. Labor statistics for May and June could indicate whether the state economy can overcome the forces pressing the rest of the country to the brink of recession, he said.

For Eastern Washington, that may depend on how long agriculture enjoys the best commodities markets in decades, said Eastern Washington University professor Grant Forsyth.

He said 2008 should be another strong year for most counties in the region, with the exception of timber-dependent Ferry and Stevens counties. A new mine will help Ferry County, he said, but plunging housing numbers will be a drag on that part of Washington.

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