Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Wenatchee MSA job market surges, outpacing state

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The Wenatchee metro area employment picture looked exceptionally bright in January, with total nonfarm jobs surging at more than four times the statewide pace, according to a new report by a state labor economist.

In his monthly labor area summary, Donald W. Meseck, Regional Labor Economist at the Employment Security Department, found that total nonfarm employment in the two-county Wenatchee metro area registered 49,400 jobs in January 2024, up a robust 6.2% or 2,900 jobs compared to January 2023.

This significantly outpaced the 1.4% year-over-year job growth rate across Washington state over the same period, with the Wenatchee area expanding at a faster clip than the state for the past nine consecutive months.

"This divergence, with rapid local job growth versus more modest gains statewide, appears to be widening," Meseck wrote in his report.

Construction Boom Leads the Way

The booming construction industry led all sectors in year-over-year employment gains, adding 800 jobs for a 26.7% spike. This was aided by an uptick in home sales even as listings shrank and prices cooled slightly.

While relatively high mortgage rates continued to weigh on construction hiring statewide, as that sector shed 4.1% of its workforce, the Wenatchee area housing market remained fairly resilient.

Meseck's report also highlighted robust 9.2% job growth in the local leisure and hospitality sector over the past year as hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues staffed up amid a rebound in tourism and business travel.

Professional services firms and other industries also expanded payrolls at a healthy clip. However, local retailers trimmed 1.5% of their workforce, mirroring statewide losses in that sector.

Unemployment Rate Ticks Up

The fast pace of job creation did lead the Wenatchee metro area's unemployment rate to tick up to 6.4% in January from 6.1% a year earlier as more residents entered the labor force actively looking for work.  

However, the area's 4.4% annual unemployment rate for 2023 still marked the lowest level on record dating back to 1990, according to Meseck.

Agriculture's Influence Wanes 

While the farm sector has long been the region's economic bedrock, Meseck's report signaled that agriculture's role in the local job market has gradually become less pronounced over the past decade.

From 2012 to 2022, agricultural employment plummeted by over 20% in Chelan County and nearly 25% in Douglas County amid automation, conversion of some seasonal farm jobs to year-round positions, and increased use of temporary H-2A labor from abroad.

As a result, agriculture's share of total employment in the two-county area fell by nearly seven percentage points in Chelan County and 9.5 points in Douglas County over that span.

Outlook Uncertain 

Looking ahead, Meseck cautioned that relatively high-interest rates could continue weighing on construction hiring across Washington state, though the resilient housing market may somewhat insulate the local industry.

More broadly, the labor economist wrote that economic crosscurrents and potential headwinds make the overall employment outlook uncertain in the coming months. But for now, Meseck's report depicts a Wenatchee metro area firmly in an upswing fueled by brisk hiring across several key industries outpacing statewide job growth.

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