It’s Labor Day, and unemployment here is at a 20-year low

Snohomish County’s jobless rate hasn’t been this low since 1999. And that’s good for job-seekers.

EVERETT — Everyone seems to be working this Labor Day.

Snohomish County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which was about 4% at the beginning of the year, took a sharp downturn in April, dropping a full percentage point to 3%. And it’s hovered there ever since.

The last time the county’s jobless rate dipped that low was April 1999, when it was 3.1%.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Megan Slabinski, a district president with Robert Half’s technology division. The global staffing firm has offices in Lynnwood, Seattle and throughout the U.S.

“Unemployment is at a 50-year low,” Slabinski said, referring to a nationwide consensus. “Essentially, we’re at full employment.”

Statewide, the unemployment rate was 4.6% in July.

For the past 18 to 24 months, companies have been complaining that they can’t find enough job candidates to grow their business, she said.

Businesses say that the “shortage of potential employees relative to the demand … is slowing economic growth,” according to the most recent report from the National Federation of Independent Business. A record 26% of employers said that finding qualified workers is their No. 1 issue, the highest percentage since 1973, when the survey began. In July, 39% of small businesses said they had positions they could not fill, the report said.

Besides a low jobless rate, the Puget Sound region has two of the world’s biggest employers — Amazon and Microsoft.

“They’re growing, sucking up talent,” Slabinski said. “And that makes the low unemployment rate even more competitive.”

The state minimum wage is $12 an hour and will rise to $13.50 in January. Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage is pushing some Snohomish County businesses to offer the same.

Slabinski is advising companies to allow at least nine to 12 weeks to find their next employee.

The first indicator of a tight labor market — more jobs than job candidates — is the phone starts ringing off the hook, said Olivia Maisel, branch manager of Northwest Staffing Services in Everett. The staffing firm focuses on light industrial, clerical and production jobs.

“Companies that might not have used a staffing agency in the past start calling us because they can’t find people,” Maisel said.

Competition for job applicants, which can be fierce in some industries, is giving “employers a dose of reality. They realize they’re going to have to raise their pay rate or lower their expectations for the amount of experience.”

With labor shortages, “employers have to exhibit a willingness to look outside the box,” Maisel said.

Slabinski is advising employers to make job-hunting part of the company’s daily strategy. “You should be going to career fairs, schools … always be on the lookout.”

Also important is keeping current employees on the payroll, Slabinski said.

“Check in on your employees’ job satisfaction. Invest in training. Lay out a three- to five-year career path for employees — a road map for what they can expect if they stay with the company,” Slabinski said.

On the other hand, if you’re a job seeker, “it’s a great time for anyone to look for work,” she said.

Job-seekers who’ve been sidelined in the past because of a disability, lack of recent work history or a criminal record also stand a better chance of employment in the current climate, she said.

Here’s what Slabinski tells job-seekers: In the present market you’ve got some leverage. Don’t be afraid to negotiate on your behalf, but don’t price yourself out of the market.

If the starting salary is too low, ask that your review be in six months instead of 12, she said.

And don’t “ghost” employers by never showing up for interviews or the first day of work.

Here’s why, said Slabinski: “This job market will change. It will, of course, crack, and you might be on the begging end. Remember that your career is going to be very long. Don’t burn bridges.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods.

Snohomish County by the numbers

• The decrease in the jobless rate from 4% in March to 3% is a 25% decline in the number of unemployed folks. In March, 17,523 people in the county were unemployed. In April, only 13,100 were jobless.

• May’s jobless rate was 3.1%, June was 3.0% and July’s preliminary rate, subject to adjustment, was 3.3%.

• In July, the number of people employed full time or seeking full-time work in Snohomish County was about 441,000. The county’s population is about 815,000.

• In April 1998, the county’s jobless rate hit a low of 2.6%. That’s the lowest rate since 1990, when the federal agency began tracking unemployment by county.

• The county’s jobless rate reached a high of 11.2% in January and February of 2010.

• Last year’s Snohomish County unemployment rate averaged 3.8%.

• In the past 12 months, most of the county’s job growth has come from the “goods-producing” sector that includes construction, mining, logging and manufacturing. Aerospace manufacturers alone added 2,600 jobs in the past year.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economic Alliance Snohomish County, U.S. Census

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