Washington’s job market is rebounding faster than it is across much of America, and is barely a thousand jobs short of its all-time high, according the latest state jobs report.
One surprising case in point: Boeing, which spent much of the pandemic on life support, now seems to be on a hiring tear.
The aerospace giant is hiring from 50 to 80 machinists and an additional 25 to 40 engineers, technical workers and interns every week, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, the two major unions representing Boeing workers. Most of the machinist hires are new, as Boeing has already called back most of its laid off workers, a machinists union spokesperson said.
But the state’s jobs rebound won’t feel like a win to everyone, especially those in some communities outside of the Seattle area or in sectors, such as restaurants, that aren’t enjoying quite the same recovery.
While April’s overall jobs news is good, the “rebound has been uneven,” said Jacob Vigdor, an economist with the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy who studies state and local job markets.
Despite the broader job market’s near-record performance, those who still haven’t found work may not be “feeling like their standard of living is anywhere near an all-time high,” Vigdor added.
Washington employers added 12,300 jobs in April, up from 9,000 in March, the Employment Security Department reported Wednesday. That means Washington accounted for 2.9% of the nation’s job growth, despite having just 2.3% of the nation’s population, Vigdor said.
It also puts state employment back to within 1,300 jobs of the roughly 3.5 million jobs it had in February 2020, just before the first big COVID-19-related layoffs.
Impressively, those improvements come despite wholesale cost increases, supply chain problems and especially worker shortages, which makes it extra hard to fill positions for employers who are trying to take advantage of the reviving economy.
“The current pace of job growth is surprising given how tight the labor market is,” said Paul Turek, the ESD’s state economist, in a statement Wednesday.
Some of April’s top performers were also the most familiar. Many professional service firms and IT companies, which avoided slowdowns by shifting operations to remote work, kept up hiring during the pandemic and haven’t really let up.
Information technology firms, for example, accounted for around a fifth of April’s new jobs statewide. Since February 2020, employment in that industry is up by 17,400 jobs, or 11.6%.
Less expected, perhaps, is the hiring bump in manufacturing, which was hit hard early in the pandemic and was initially slow to recover.
Boeing was ranked second, behind only Amazon, among the state’s 25 top employers by number of job openings posted online from January through April, according to ESD data. A year ago, Boeing didn’t even make the list.
Boeing has offered few details about current hiring but has said it has about 5,000 open positions in the Puget Sound region.
“The Boeing numbers definitely pull up the entire manufacturing sector,” said Vigdor. As a result, Washington state accounted for 3.3% of the nation’s total growth in manufacturing jobs, even though it has just 2.3% of the total U.S. population, Vigdor said.
Still, many sectors haven’t fully turned the corner on the pandemic recession.
Restaurants and hotels added 1,000 jobs, thanks in part to a seasonal hiring push. But the industry is still down by 24,100 jobs, or nearly 7%, of their pre-COVID numbers.
The unevenness of the recovery is also playing out geographically.
The Seattle area alone accounted for more than two-thirds of the state’s job growth in April, and also added jobs nearly 40% faster than did the state as a whole, in part as hiring lagged in many areas outside the Seattle area.
In King County, unemployment was just 2.5% in March, the most recent month for which the state breaks out individual county data. That was just a fraction of the unemployment rates in places such as Grays Harbor County (7.6%) or Clallam County (6.4%).
In April, unemployment in the Seattle-area fell to 2.9%, compared to 4.1% for the state as a whole. That’s almost double the gap of a year ago.
Anneliese Vance-Sherman, an ESD regional economist who covers Seattle, notes that the urban-rural employment gap predates the pandemic, and that the recovery is merely highlighting long-standing regional economic differences.
As the pandemic wanes, “we’re really returning to those patterns … where the unemployment rates are much higher in the rural areas from the urban areas,” Vance-Sherman says.
One glaring exception: While the Seattle area’s restaurants and hotels are still down by around 13% from their pre-COVID employment, the industry outside of the Seattle area is only down by around a half a percent.
Another: It’s not just rural counties that are lagging. Pierce County’s unemployment rate in March was 5.7%, or more than twice King County’s.
And a caveat: Even with recent hiring, Boeing and other aerospace manufacturers are still missing nearly 21,000, or about 23%, of the jobs they had before COVID.
Given the uncertainty state of the global economy, Vigdor said, the industry remains highly vulnerable.
“Manufacturing is a fickle sector,” Vigdor said. “Particularly with supply chain worries and geopolitical instability potentially impacting international trade, boom can turn to bust in the blink of an eye.”
“We can’t be sure that these added jobs are here to stay,” he added.