But there are jobs out there, officials say

By Marcy Stamper

The past year has been rough for people looking for work in Okanogan County, with unemployment in the county twice as high as the state’s historically low rate.

Okanogan County’s unemployment rate for February 2018 was 9.8 percent, the third-highest in the state after neighboring Ferry (16.8 percent) and Stevens (10 percent) counties.

“Last year, Okanogan County had a dismal year,” said Don Meseck, a regional labor economist with the Washington State Employment Security Department.

“The short story is the labor market didn’t fare well in 2017,” said Meseck. Closure of Omak Forest Products at the end of January 2017 really hit the manufacturing sector, with a loss of more than 200 jobs, he said. Moreover, the first two months of 2018 are not looking good for the county, said Meseck.

Seasonal fluctuations are typical in Okanogan County. The unemployment rate generally peaks in February at more than 9 percent and falls to less then half of that during harvest season in September and October, said Meseck.

Because Meseck looks at raw numbers, his bleak assessment may not reflect the whole story. “It seems like it’s a seeker’s market — if you’re looking for a job, there’s a job out there,” said Irene Jordan, business services specialist with WorkSource Okanogan, a division of the Employment Security Department that helps connect employers and job-seekers.

Most of the activity on WorkSource is now self-serve, with employers and job-hunters using online listings. Even so, a lot of employers have been coming in and looking for workers, both experienced and non-experienced, said Jordan.

Meseck agreed that in most of Washington it’s a job-seeker’s market. And, while Okanogan County is doing better than during the recession from 2009 to 2011, jobs remain scarce, he said.

The labor force in the county dropped by 986 from February 2016 to 2017. “A shrinking labor force usually is not good economic news,” said Meseck.

The labor force is an estimate of the number of residents 16 years and older who are ready, willing and able to work, including those who’ve exhausted their unemployment benefits and still can’t find a job, said Meseck. It counts all county residents who are actively working, even if they commute to a job on a fishing boat in Alaska.

Almost every category in the county lost jobs last year except government, which includes public school employment and law enforcement. Even the leisure and hospitality industries lost jobs, said Meseck.

Seasonal jobs picking up

Over at WorkSource, Jordan hasn’t seen a pattern beyond traditionally seasonal employment. Many workers expect to be laid off for a few months in the winter and are now going back to work in construction or in outdoor jobs, she said.

That seasonal pattern is even more pronounced in the Methow, with people biding their time until the U.S. Forest Service or Washington Department of Natural Resources start hiring, said Jordan. It’s still too early for people to find restaurant and other tourist-dependent jobs, which typically aren’t filled until the North Cascades Highway reopens, she said.

“We bring in foreign students every year — it fills in the gap,” said Doug Mohre, who recently sold Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe in Winthrop after 25 years.

“There are just not that many people in the valley to cover the uptick in tourism. If we had to rely just on the valley, we couldn’t even open,” said Mohre. Sheri’s typically has about 24 employees, half of them full-time, to cover its six-month season.

Many restaurants and hotels in the valley use employees from overseas or from out of the area, including some young people whose families have vacation homes here, said Mohre. Without these people, employers would get a few applicants but nowhere near the staff they need, he said.

A lot of local kids want to work only part-time because they’re attending sports camps or going on vacation, said Mohre. It’s also difficult to fill jobs during the week in spring and fall when kids are in school, he said.

The Methow Valley Ranger District hires about 50 seasonal workers each year and has filled almost all the jobs this year, according to District Ranger Mike Liu. A small percentage of these workers are long-time seasonal employees who come back year after year, he said.

About 30 of those people work as firefighters, both for prescribed burning in the spring and on engines and hand crews during fire season. The other 20 are split between the trail crew and miscellaneous positions, said Liu.

In fact, this year there are a few more seasonal jobs, since the district has additional funding to restore trails burned last summer in the Diamond Creek Fire. There’s also been higher-than-usual turnover on fire crews, providing more opportunities for seasonal and full-time positions, said Liu.

Lagging the state

Even if it is a job-hunter’s market, the numbers for Okanogan County are striking when compared with the rest of the state. Okanogan County and many neighboring counties had an unemployment rate between 9 and 10 percent in February, more than twice the state average of 4.7 percent. The market here is even less favorable when compared with the booming economy in some counties in Western Washington. Unemployment in February was just 3.7 percent in King County and 4.2 percent in Snohomish.

This is the first year since 2014 that Okanogan County saw unemployment in nonfarm jobs go up. While the number of jobs in the county fell during the recession from 2008 through 2013 — from 13,040 to a low of 12,120 — total jobs climbed back to 12,890 before losing 200 jobs last year, according to Meseck.

Meseck found that Okanogan County lost nonfarm jobs every month except one in the past year, whereas these jobs have steadily expanded in Washington for 89 consecutive months. Leisure and hospitality jobs fell each month from July through December last year, but picked up in the first two months of 2018, said Meseck.

Jobs in construction have fallen for the past year and a half in Okanogan County, whereas in Washington the construction sector has been adding workers for six years without a single decline.

Meseck tracks nonfarm employment in two broad categories — goods-producing and services-producing. “Services are plugging along pretty well,” adding about 200 jobs in the county compared with last February, he said. But goods-producing — mainly construction and logging, with some mining — fell by 290 jobs in that same time.

Many of the people laid off when the mill closed are now attending school, since they qualified for retraining through a federal program because they lost business as a result of foreign trade, said Jordan.

Although some laid-off workers qualify for education benefits, they have to train for an occupation in demand in their area. In Okanogan County, secondary-school teachers (but not elementary-school or kindergarten teachers), physical therapists and speech pathologists, and computer-systems analysts are all “occupations in demand,” meaning there are 50 or more jobs within a designated geographic area based on 10-year projections, according to the Employment Security Department. Okanogan County is part of the geographic area that includes Adams, Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties.

Farmers and ranchers, lawyers and floral designers are not in demand.