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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County jobless rate declines

Housing recovery has helped boost local job market

Boosted by hiring at assisted living centers, restaurants and retail stores, Spokane County’s jobless rate in August fell to 7.2 percent – the lowest in nearly five years, the state reported Tuesday.

December 2008 was the last time Spokane’s unemployment rate was that low.

That month was also the last time – until August – that U.S. unemployment was less than 7.3 percent, before it was driven up by the collapse of the real estate bubble and the Wall Street financial crisis.

The July jobless rate for Spokane was 7.9 percent.

Spokane’s job growth inched forward in 2011, but forecasters believed employers and consumers wouldn’t see a full recovery until 2018.

Late last year at a public forum, Avista’s chief economist Grant Forsyth told business leaders 2013 would be another slow year of job growth of no more than 1.5 percent.

On Tuesday, Forsyth said he was wrong, and Spokane’s job growth is about double what he projected in December.

“The job picture shows that the growth is going on across many sectors, especially in the service sector, the largest employment source,” Forsyth said.

“The main reason (for underestimating job growth) was not expecting the housing market recovery to be as strong as it’s been,” Forsyth said. That sector has a multiplier effect on companies that make things – like furniture and fixtures – and employers who provide services, such as painting, plumbing and landscaping.

Forsyth noted Spokane is still years away from recovering all the jobs lost since November 2007, when the county peaked at 221,900 jobs.

Tuesday’s state employment report said Spokane has 212,000 jobs. That’s almost 10,000 fewer than the 2007 high-water mark. But it’s also 6,700 more jobs than in August 2012.

Forsyth said another factor causing a hiring surge is the absence of “policy uncertainty” that hung over area employers, largely as companies worried how the Affordable Care Act would affect them.

“They’ve accepted it and are getting beyond it, and they have a clearer idea of how it affects them,” he said.

Another factor in boosting area jobs is the multiplier effect of higher-wage jobs, said Doug Tweedy, labor economist with the state Employment Security Department.

Job growth in Spokane County in 2012 was largely limited to higher-wage skilled positions, Tweedy said. Those were with insurance companies, medical service providers, advanced manufacturing firms and scientific-technical employers.

Once those jobs were added, the economy started to rev up and the consumer confidence dial started to move into positive territory, Tweedy said.

“They had good-paying jobs and those consumers began spending more money,” which gradually spurred an expansion across service-sector companies like restaurants, trucking companies, financial services firms and hotels, he said.

The county’s largest monthly gains came in food services, 800 jobs; health care and social services, 800 jobs; construction, 300 jobs; transportation and trade, 200 jobs; and retail, 200 jobs.

The one sour note continues to be job losses in government, Tweedy said. Since last year, Spokane has lost 200 government jobs at local, state and federal levels.

Construction jobs reflect the regional spurt in both commercial and residential , Tweedy said.

Within the health-care sector, Spokane gained 800 jobs from July to August. Of those, 300 were in hospitals and another 300 were in the social services subgroup.

“Those jobs were added in retirement and assisted care centers across Spokane,” Tweedy said.

Forsyth said that gain of 300 assisted-care positions aligns with his general impressions of the advertising he sees on TV and in print. “We’re seeing more advertising by companies offering 55-plus living arrangements,” Forsyth said.

As the first wave of baby boomer retirements continues, he expects there will continue to be more jobs created at retirement communities and by businesses that offer graduated care.