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Local job front shows signs of revival

Spokane took a giant leap backward last month, and that was a good thing.

After months of sagging employment figures, the county registered 3,000 new jobs. That was enough to offset losses going back to February, but at 222,420 the total remains 7,000 jobs shy of the peak reached in November 2008.

Health care and education have propped up the numbers as best they could throughout the downturn. In October, most every sector contributed to the rebound, with the exceptions of construction and manufacturing. Government was a big gainer thanks in part to a boost from Northern Quest Casino.

The Kalispell Tribe will soon have more than 1,500 on the resort and casino’s payroll – a remarkable achievement, albeit one based on an industry many have a hard time saluting.

Still, more than 19,000 remain unemployed, and that number includes only those actively looking for work. A broader measure – economists refer to it as U-6 – adds thousands more working part time but who want full-time employment, and those not looking who would if they saw an opportunity.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the national U-6 for October was 16.3 percent unadjusted for seasonality. For Washington, the figure was 14.7 percent. There is no breakdown by county.

For many, U-6 better captures the nation’s economic angst than does the conventional measure of unemployment. Anxiety about the future so permeates the national psychology, the 10.2 percent unemployment rate seems inadequate.

Slippery estimates of the jobs created by the economic stimulus package have added irritation to frustration, although sometimes unfairly. Keeping thousands of teachers in classrooms will not seem like much of a stimulus until they are not there. Sadly, given the latest state budget projections, that day may be nearer for many.

Jeff Chapman is a member of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Council of Economic Advisers, and research director at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center in Seattle. He says there’s a reason many are so testy: The pool of unemployed or underemployed labor is so deep, those with a job have no leverage if they want a wage increase.

With the Consumer Price Index in reverse, cost-of-living adjustments will not be padding paychecks as they have so routinely in years past.

And many formerly full-time workers are devastated when reduced hours torch their household budgets, Chapman says, adding that the corps of underemployed always increases in a recession.

In fact, he says, Washington employers have not fully reabsorbed the underemployed created by the 2000-2001 recession. Unless the economy makes an exceptionally sharp turn, the state will endure an unemployment rate higher than 9 percent into 2011.

The diversity of Spokane’s economy has kept the county below that level, and the October figures were reassuring. But Employment Security’s local labor economist, Doug Tweedy, cautions that one month is one month, with the likelihood the job statistics will continue to fluctuate.

He does note that the Spokane WorkSource office has more job openings posted – around 900 – than it did one month ago.

There are opportunities out there. Whether they add up to a better November, December or 2010, we will find out.

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