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Experts optimistic about Inland Northwest job market in 2014

Employment specialist Nancy Thorson explains WorkSource Spokane services to 50 unemployed workers during an orientation Dec. 31. (Colin Mulvany)
Employment specialist Nancy Thorson explains WorkSource Spokane services to 50 unemployed workers during an orientation Dec. 31. (Colin Mulvany)

Keely Barrett is among the more than 15,000 Spokane-area workers who are unemployed.

Barrett, 53, has been out of work for more than two years after being laid off from her job as a communications director for a Spokane credit union. She’s spent the past two years taking courses in health information management and doing internships.

Those new skills and her focused daily job search should pay dividends in 2014, Barrett said, helping land her a position in an occupation she believes will have a strong future.

Among developments that give Barrett hope: upbeat predictions about the regional economy; the stock market is still rocking; and area business-watchers say the new year should at least match 2013 in the number of jobs companies are likely to fill.

Plus, Barrett knows she’s in the hottest industry in both Spokane and Kootenai counties: health care.

In North Idaho, 14 of the top 20 “hot” jobs for the next six years are in health care, said Alivia Metts, the state’s Labor Department regional economist.

“The picture is not bleak. It all depends on whether the job-seeker can match the skills the employer is looking for,” she said.

Spokane County should also see continued growth in health care jobs, said Doug Tweedy, Washington state labor economist for Spokane. During 2013, the health care sector generated 1,200 new jobs, making it the sector with the fastest job growth in Spokane County.

Barrett spends hours each week contacting people in the medical industry and tracking job leads. After completing the courses at Spokane Community College, she earned the national certification in health records management.

After more than 20 years in administrative positions, Barrett said she’s realistic and doesn’t expect to land a high-paying job right off.

“I will likely have to take an entry-level job,” she said, and she hopes to eventually find a position at an area hospital that provides acute inpatient care.

The plan is to advance into a management job after she gets a foot in the door, she said.

The driving factor for the expanding health care job sector in both North Idaho and Spokane is demand from an aging population in need of more medical care.

Metts, the regional economist in North Idaho, noted that the graying population there is being boosted by an influx of retirees.

Tweedy and Metts project that Spokane and Kootenai counties will be adding health care jobs across the board, from medical secretaries and technicians to registered nurses and pharmacists.

Still, Tweedy said, “the biggest increase during 2013 for Spokane was for jobs in care centers.”

Added Metts: “Most of the growth over the past year (in Kootenai County) was in hospitals and nursing care facilities.”

The salaries for health care jobs vary, with home-care and assisted-living facility workers earning wages at the lower end of the spectrum.

The national median wage for health aides is $9.77 per hour.

But other fast-growing health industry jobs will pay better salaries: medical assistants earn a median wage of $14.40 per hour; medical secretaries earn $15.15 per hour; EMTs and paramedics, $15.28; and registered nurses, $32.04 per hour. Those are national median salaries provided by census databases.

Other Spokane-area industries that are expected to see job growth this year include some segments of manufacturing; transportation-warehousing; professional-scientific; and retail trade and food service, Tweedy said.

Jobs in restaurants and drinking establishments were the second-fastest-growing segment in Spokane County in 2013, with a gain of 1,000 jobs, the state reported.

Tweedy noted that manufacturing job growth will be selective. The gains will be concentrated in jobs involving operating computers and machines that work with chemicals and composite materials.

“These are not your father’s skilled manufacturing jobs,” Tweedy said. “These are clean and more complex manufacturing jobs.”

Zak Designs, the Airway Heights-based company that designs and sells plastic and ceramic tableware, expects to add up to 10 new jobs this year. Some will be in sales and information technology, but the others will be in product development and design.

Those are considered manufacturing jobs, Tweedy said, even though the key equipment those workers will use are computers with design software.

In Kootenai County, other strong job sectors will be wholesale trade; leisure and hospitality; manufacturing wood products; metal fabrication; and transportation equipment, Metts said.

Looking back at the past two years of job growth in Spokane, Tweedy said this recovery is different from past ones because it hasn’t relied on construction jobs to restart the economy.

“We’ve had a two-stage growth. First were the higher-wage jobs in information technology, scientific and professional jobs. The second phase is the follow-on jobs in retail and food service,” he said.

Construction has come back compared to 2009, but Spokane’s overall construction sector is still lagging. “We are still 3,000 construction jobs below our peak level in 2007,” Tweedy said.

Both Metts and Tweedy acknowledge the job market hasn’t heated up to where job seekers have more than one or two jobs to choose from.

It’s still a buyer’s market, Tweedy said, but one factor shows how the market is improving: In 2012, a survey of area employers found that it took on average 45 days to fill a vacant position. A survey conducted by the state Employment Security Department this past fall showed that hiring is accelerating, with the average time to fill a job dropping to 22 days.

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