Tri-Cities ends year at top of job market, largest labor force

By Sean Bassinger

The Tri-Cities ended the year with the largest labor force ever and the fastest-growing job market in the state.

Kennewick, Richland and Pasco added more than 3,800 jobs in December, or 3.6 percent growth over the same month the previous year.

The next fastest growth rates in the state include Wenatchee at 3.1 percent, followed by Spokane and Seattle at 2.8 percent.

The state added 82,300 jobs for an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, according to the Employment Security Department.

“There was very rapid growth for employment in the Tri-Cities during that time,” said Ajsa Suljic, the state’s regional economist for the Tri-Cities.

Some 134,500 civilian workers made up the Tri-Cities’ labor force market in 2016, with an average annual growth rate of 3 percent, when compared to the 2015 annual average.

“This is the highest labor force that we have had ever,” Suljic said.

Manufacturing and construction were amoung the fastest-growing industries last year, with more than 1,100 jobs added, or nearly 15 percent.

One of the region’s biggest projects is the construction of the AutoZone distribution center on Capitol Avenue, just north of the King City Truck Stop in Pasco. The $38.9 million building will add more than 200 jobs to the area.

The new ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston french fry processing plant under construction in north Richland also contributed to the growth. The $200 million Lamb Weston facility will add about 160 jobs to the community.

Also, a new 1,000-square-foot Central Washington Corn Processors facility, at 3334 Longston Blvd. in north Richland, was completed to become the largest building of its kind in the area.

Construction of these facilities alone added more than 300 jobs to the area, a 4.5 percent growth from the previous year.

“It’s very, very nice to see that,” Suljic said. “The state of Washington, as a labor force, is driven by Seattle and the (Interstate 5) corridor, but we’re one of the faster-growing than the rest.”

The Hanford cleanup project has been another continued source of job creation and labor income for the Tri-Cities, only slowing down in 2011 and 2012 when about half of the workers were laid off.

“At the same time, they retained half, so very good retention rate if you look at it,” Suljic said. “We didn’t lose everything we gained.”

Despite the growth, there have been some challenges. At least 700 jobs were lost in the business services sector, a decrease of 3.3 percent.

The losses likely came from the decline of Hanford jobs, said Carl Adrian, CEO of the Tri-City Development Council.

Diversification has been a top priority for TRIDEC as it looks for new ways as the community continues to grow outside of Hanford.

Though they’ve seen workers come and go, Adrian said Hanford has been steady in terms of employment for the past 15 years.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland continues to be the largest private employer in the area with more than 4,300 staff. Other core areas of growth include health care, with Kadlec Health Systems alone tripling its employment in the past decade, Adrian said.

Austin Neilson, government and economic affairs director at the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the Tri-Cities will continue to see a lot of new diversification in the labor markets.

He cited distribution warehouses, such as the new AutoZone facility, and the continued success of the agricultural industry.

“That type of investment is really just a great sign that the Tri-Cities is moving beyond that traditional Hanford reliance,” he said.

He described the economic climate as being poised for more growth in the months ahead.

“I think it’s just a testament to the growth we continue to see here in the Tri-Cities,” Neilson said.

This includes more support efforts to help new entrepreneurs and startups in the area. He said Washington was one of the biggest trade states with exports from Central Washington going around the world.

Overall, Neilson said it’s great news to see the Tri-Cities being at the top of job growth for 2016.

“It’s just another good sign that the community’s headed in the right direction,” he said.

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