Caldwell: Production, accounting don’t follow same paths

Washington manufacturers are an unhappy lot. At least they were back in August.

Accountants, on the other hand, should be smiling right on through.

Impact Washington, formerly Washington Manufacturing Services, conducted a first-ever survey of 410 manufacturers last summer.

Spokeswoman Linda Adams says the organization is often asked about member opinion of state affairs, and what services they might want from Olympia.

“We really just wanted a baseline,” she says.

Good word, baseline. Sentiment can only go up from responses to a question regarding Washington’s business environment. An overwhelming 74 percent said the state was on the wrong track.

Those surveyed were also four times more likely to predict a recession rather than an expansion in 2011.

These folks are blue from the collar up.

To a series of questions about the factors shaping their opinions, on a scale of one to 10, 69 percent said they were “very concerned” about federal, state and local taxation, as were 63 percent about state government policies and regulations, and 56 percent about federal government policies and regulations.

It’s not often Washington, D.C., under-polls Olympia when it comes to over-bearing government.

The other element considered a concern by a majority of those surveyed — 60 percent — was the cost of health care.

All of these most troublesome factors, Adams notes, cannot be controlled by businesses. When the line of questioning shifted to challenges unrelated to government — pricing pressure, cost of goods and availability of capital, for example — responses varied much more.

Adams was most surprised by the degree of concern, or lack thereof, regarding foreign competition: 17 percent of respondents said it was a top concern, 17 percent said it was not a concern.

“The people who are selling internationally are off-the-charts more optimistic than anyone else,” she says.

In fact, 72 percent said they were confident or somewhat confident about their own firm’s future, although hiring, capital spending and wages will not change much in 2011.

Adams attributes some of the pessimism to the timing of the survey. Nothing underscores the negatives like an election.

“Companies are much more optimistic about the future than is reflected in the survey,” she says.

Looking at a breakdown of the results by region, the thriving Tri-Cities was most optimistic, the struggling Vancouver area the gloomiest.

“It’s the Portland factor,” Adams says. “It’s hard for them to attract good talent.”

Returns for the Spokane area tracked those for the state, which accords with the read of Stan Key, manufacturing industry manager for Greater Spokane Incorporated.

Key says the election results and the new federal tax bill are improving attitudes, but the proposed 12 percent increase in workers compensation premiums was not helpful.

The area’s many aerospace manufacturers continue to do well, he notes.

Also strong, according to another survey done by placement company Robert Half, is the demand for white-collar professionals. In Spokane, that is particularly the case with accountants of all kinds.

Dianne LaValley, Spokane director for the Accountemps division of Robert Half, says good accountants can almost count on a job. Tax accountants and chief financial officer-types can name their salary figure.

With the exception of construction, all her clients are looking for help, LaValley says.

So, manufacturing down, accounting up.

Conclusion? Blue collar or white, we need more.

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