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Shrinking labor force, tourism gains help February job rate

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Mark Berreth, state regional labor economist

WENATCHEE — Winter’s lull in ag work, a shrinking civilian labor force and hefty job gains in a few key industries helped Chelan and Douglas counties post a 9.8 percent unemployment rate in February, the lowest rate for the month in four years.

February job numbers, released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department, showed a 0.4 percent decrease over the same month last year for the two-county area. Statewide, unemployment stood at 8.2 percent, a 1.1 percent drop from February 2012.

The month’s improvement partially stemmed from a drop in the civilian labor force and not solely from the creation of new jobs, said Regional Labor Economist Mark Berreth. Through 2012, he said, the labor force has suffered ups and downs as discouraged workers left the area for work elsewhere or discontinued their job searches, and that trend likely continued in February.

This trend seemed to be fading at the end of 2012,” said Berreth, “but these new figures may suggest the opposite.”

The labor force is composed of both employed workers and the unemployed searching for jobs. A change in the size of the labor force can improve unemployment rates even when the number of actual jobs shrinks slightly or remains flat.

More positive news, said Berreth, is that the February jobless rate was bolstered by gains in a few key sectors, including manufacturing and tourism, to boost total nonfarm employment by 3 percent (1,100 jobs) over the same month last year.

In February, manufacturing in Chelan and Douglas counties jumped 9.1 percent (200 jobs), trucking and warehousing rose 9 percent (800 jobs) and tourism increased by 6.1 percent (300 jobs).

The two sectors showing substantial, mostly seasonal, declines were construction with a 6.7 percent decline (100 jobs) and the federal government with a 12.5 percent drop (100 jobs).

Last month’s jobless rate of 9.8 percent was the lowest rate since 2009, when the February unemployment rate in the two-county area was 9.4 percent.

In Okanogan County, the February jobless rate rose 0.3 percent over the same month last year to hit 12.8 percent. Sectors showing the largest gains included wholesale trade at 28.6 percent (60 jobs), trucking and utilities at 14.3 percent (20 jobs) and manufacturing at 11.8 percent (40 jobs).

In Grant County, the February unemployment rate also rose 0.3 percent over the same month last year to hit 12.9 percent. Sectors showing gains were information and financial activities, mostly data center employment, with 14.3 percent rise (140 jobs) and trucking and utilities with a 7.4 percent rise (400 jobs).

Mike Irwin: 665-1179

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.