Washington State unemployment climbs to 7%

By Pamela Sitt
Seattle Times business reporter


Washington State - Washington's unemployment rate hit 7 percent in March, inching up from February's revised 6.9 percent and stalling the state's previously forecast "very slow" recovery from recession, according to figures released yesterday by the state Employment Security Department.

"We've been expecting it would be about 7 percent, so no surprise there," said Chang Mook Sohn, the state's chief economist. "The state's economy is still extremely weak. It's not getting any worse, but at the same time it is not showing recovery signs."

In the Seattle area, the jobless rate jumped three-tenths of a percentage point from February's revised figure to 6.4 percent in March, according to Roberta Pauer, Seattle economist with the state Department of Employment Security. The jobless figures are adjusted for seasonal changes in the labor force to give a more accurate picture of the overall job market.

The news is discouraging to local college seniors who are preparing to enter the job market.

"It's hard on the new graduates right now," said Susan Terry, director of the University of Washington's Center for Career Services. "Many of them are at least talking about going to graduate school."

Still, it's not as bad as some people think, Terry said. "It's not great, but there are jobs," she said. Among the "hot" industries for graduates, according to a recent survey by international consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, are health care, security, insurance and consumer financial services.

In Washington, health-care practitioners particularly registered nurses and nursing aides top the list of jobs in demand, the state Employment Security Department reported this week. Job openings for registered nurses, nursing aides and licensed practical nurses numbered around 4,300 statewide late last year, according to the report.

Washington's unemployment rate in March remained well above the national figure, which held steady at 5.8 percent in March and February.

Two of the hardest-hit industries statewide and locally were retail, which shed 8,000 jobs, and Boeing-dependent aerospace, which cut 700 jobs, Pauer said. In addition, revenue-strapped local governments eliminated 700 jobs, she said.

"Although the obvious causes include the war with Iraq, as well as the uncertainty of the SARS epidemic, it is important to remember that the state and local economies would not have been strong even without those events," Pauer said. "Seattle and Puget Sound have particular vulnerability to the travel-related economic impacts of both the Iraqi conflict and SARS."

Employment in most other industries across the state which has nearly 2.6 million jobs were flat or up slightly, Pauer said.

Sohn said he expects the statewide figure to remain at 7 percent or increase slightly during the rest of the year because of continued cuts in aerospace and retail.

While Sohn recalls the state's unemployment rate being as low as 4.7 percent during the late 1990s boom, he finds 7 percent, in this climate, to be reasonable.

"Considering the weak national economy and international situations with the Iraqi war and SARS ... 7 percent is a decent rate of unemployment," he said. "It's not really depressing."

Pamela Sitt: 206-464-2291 or psitt@seattletimes.com


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