A yearlong series looking at the Inland Northwest job market, workers and the economy.
Leasa Harmon is pursuing a new career guided by advice that may sound illogical, if not reckless, in a job market that remains erratic and scarce of opportunity. The Coeur d’Alene woman is following her heart instead of choosing one of the paths with the greatest potential for job growth. Harmon, 51, is taking classes at North Idaho College with the aim of becoming an art therapy specialist working with war veterans, autistic children and at-risk juveniles. And she’s doing it with a big smile on her face and mounting confidence that she has found her calling. Even in a tight job market, graduates and people changing direction mid-career still can find fulfilling and meaningful employment, she said.
Most people might have missed the news that Spokane’s AmericanWest Bank is buying Oregon-based PremierWest Bank. But it’s big news for people keeping track of new jobs. That pending acquisition will add more jobs to the bank’s Spokane support center, and then more later as PremierWest’s 32 branches are folded into AmericanWest’s operations. The new jobs are emblematic of what is happening to the financial services sector in Spokane. While unemployment remains stubbornly high in Spokane and North Idaho, finance is among three strong areas rocking forward in the past couple of years, along with specialized manufacturing and scientific-professional jobs.
When Christopher Griffin fills out job applications, he knows his work history stands out for the wrong reason. He hasn’t held a job since 2005, well before the recession. The 31-year-old Spokane man was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago this month. The news derailed his working life. After years of fine-tuning medical treatments and attending community college accounting classes part time, Griffin is ready to go back to work. He hopes to land a job that permits him to mostly sit, as standing for long periods is difficult. Griffin is one of hundreds of people with disabilities who are looking for employment in a job market still saturated with unemployed and underemployed workers.
A growing cluster of aerospace companies in the Inland Northwest is reaping the rewards of a global surge in aircraft production. It’s also setting the table for a main course that could nourish the economy much like health care and education do today. The ultimate prize would be an assembly or manufacturing plant employing a thousand or more workers. It’s not a pipe dream when one considers the foundation in place in Spokane County and North Idaho, economic development leaders say. “I think we are on the precipice of a real advance,” said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated.
More than 15,000 jobs were lost in Spokane and Kootenai counties when the housing bubble burst in 2008, and most of those haven’t come back. Labor market economists say jobs are being created, albeit slowly. But in both counties, economists say the jobs being created are mostly the right kind. Many of the jobs created since 2010 are higher-wage positions in advanced manufacturing, health care, financial services and a category called professional-scientific-technical, which covers software engineers, electronics technicians, researchers, architectural draftsmen and similar jobs.
Upon arriving in the U.S. from Ukraine, Max Baron and his family faced obstacles many refugees do on their way to self-sufficiency. After working some dead-end jobs, Baron landed work at the Davenport Hotel and Tower, one of several local businesses that often seek refugees when hiring. Each year hundreds of refugees like Baron arrive in Spokane in search of a second chance. Some come with next to nothing from refugee camps in countries torn apart by war, poverty or famine. Many have suffered religious or political persecution. All are seeking the opportunity to make a better life for themselves.
The Spokane-area job picture is still shaky, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. But in spite of the gloom, several startups are buzzing along, creating dozens of jobs and attracting workers. They aren’t the only companies that have grown during the recession, of course. But all three opened their doors during the worst economy in generations and have other characteristics in common, including a relatively young workforce and a national customer base.
An aging baby boomer labor trend is predicted to accelerate in the near future as boomers stay in the workforce past retirement age. This trend could help rev the economy and ease worries about Social Security solvency.
Two decades of emphasis on the four-year college degree track have left a workforce gap in trades such as construction, manufacturing, machining and automotive technology. At the same time, employers are importing workers from other states, and even other countries, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics because of a shortage of qualified local applicants. School districts throughout the Inland Northwest are responding with new programs and opportunities to better prepare students for the realities of today’s job market.
North Dakota seemingly offers endless opportunities for people willing to work hard. New drilling technologies have created an oil boom on the state’s dusty western edge. Thirty-five thousand people work in the oil fields there, and employers are begging for more. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 job openings exist. That's what lured Kevin and Lisa McLeod to Williston, N.D., from Coeur d'Alene. For families like them, Williston represents another shot at the American Dream.
Before the recession, many people starting a business did so because they were tired of their jobs or wanted to pursue a personal passion, such as building guitars. Now they do it because they can’t find a good job. Another change from 10 years ago: More people starting a business fall in the younger and older age groups, said Dave McKenzie, the chairman of Spokane’s SCORE program, which lines up retired business professionals who volunteer to help people start a company.
The emergence of a medical education campus in downtown Spokane promises to define the city for decades to come. Community leaders say the project it rivals Expo ’74 in scope and audacity. The price tag will rush past $1 billion, community leaders say, and build upon the rehabilitation of the city’s downtown and its growing medical sector, which that already accounts for 20 percent of Spokane’s economy.
Thousands of Inland Northwest veterans are making the transition to civilian life, hoping to claim good jobs with decent wages. One in five unemployed vets are from the post-9/11 conflicts. The unemployment rate is higher among older veterans.
The Hire U Club started in early 2012 with 18 unemployed people who meet weekly to strategize their way back into employment. Participants say the meetings offer important networking and job search tips, and provide another incentive to find a job.
From airplane parts to medical devices, cookware, pharmaceuticals and mining equipment, factories across the region are collecting contracts that square with the national trend of burgeoning productivity.
From the editor: Given the dramatic changes brought about by the Great Recession, we’ve decided that the most important subject we can write about this year is jobs and the economy, so we’re embarking on a frequent series of articles called the Road Ahead.