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Okanogan County job seekers find hope

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Anthony Roberts, right, talks to prospective employers at the Okanogan County Job Fair in Omak late last month.


Chelan-Douglas labor force drops, too

WENATCHEE — It’s not just Okanogan County that’s seeing losses in its labor force.

Preliminary numbers show the Washington state’s entire civilian workforce shrank by 0.2 percent from 2012 to 2013, said Don Meseck, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department.

He said it’s not known why people are dropping out of the work force, but he did not think the loss could be due entirely to people retiring. Statewide, 5,510 fewer people were in the workforce last year compared with the year before.

Chelan and Douglas counties saw a significant drop — a 1.3 percent loss in the number of workers, Meseck said. That amounts to 800 fewer workers, or 62,630 in 2013 compared with 61,830 2012.

Grant County, however, gained 0.8 percent, from 42,370 to 42,700 workers from 2012 to 2013.

— K.C. Mehaffey, World staff

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OMAK — Thirty-seven perspective employers were giving away pens, candy, stress balls and other small gifts at the Okanogan County Job Fair in Omak late last month.

But many of the people who stopped by their tables set up in the gymnasium of the Omak Community Center were looking for something bigger: A job.

Okanogan County regularly posts among the highest unemployment rates in the state. Most recent figures from December show the county’s rate at 9.9 percent, the 13th highest of 39 counties.

But despite the rates, Okanogan County — like other parts of the state — is bouncing back. After losing over 1,000 nonfarm jobs from 2008 to 2011, the number of jobs started to climb back up in 2012.

Sometimes it can be a really daunting experience looking for a job, especially if you’ve been unemployed for a while,” said Robert Adams, administrative assistant for the state Employment Security Department in Okanogan.

That’s why his agency started the job fair seven years ago. Since then, the agency has partnered with the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Economic Alliance and Career Path Services and the event has grown steadily from the first fair, with just 10 employers and some 50 people, Adams said.

Numbers of workers were down a bit this year — with 273 job seekers signing in.

Still, those who came were hopeful about their prospects.

Charlotte Watkins, a 42-year-old unemployed worker from Oroville, said she’s been trying to find work for a long time. Her last job was seasonal, packing cherries, she said.

In less than an hour, she had a stack of applications. “My problem is transportation. But there were some people willing to work around that. It looks hopeful,” she said, adding, “I don’t want to have to move out of the county.”

Anthony Roberts, of Okanogan, said he’s confident he’ll find something in four months, when he graduates with a degree in aerospace electronics from the Omak campus of Wenatchee Valley College.

Now 53, Roberts said he was a mechanic for his entire career, until he hurt his shoulders and had to retrain.

It wasn’t easy finding a new career in his 50s, he said. “My first week at college, I wanted to quit,” he said. “But then, once I got doing it, everything fell into place. WorkSource has really helped me,” he said.

Regional economist Don Meseck said Okanogan County’s annual unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 10.7 percent in 2010 to 8.5 percent last year.

But, he said, while the drop is good news, there’s room for caution as he looks at the county’s labor force, which is also shrinking.

Preliminary data show that in 2013, the county’s workforce — the number of people ready, willing and able to work — dropped by 1.7 percent. In raw numbers, the county had 21,080 people in its labor force in 2012, and that dropped to 20,720 last year. That’s significant compared with the state’s loss of 0.2 percent of its workforce, Meseck said.

Some of those folks may have been ready to retire, he said. But others may have moved away from the area, retired earlier than expected, or simply given up looking for work.

Did the unemployment rate drop? Yes, it did,” Meseck said. “But is it falling because they’re returning to work, or dropping out of the labor force? I think right now, it’s more of the latter.”

Reach K.C. Mehaffey at 509-997-2512 or . Read her blog An Apple a Day. follow her on Twitter at @KCMehaffeyWW.