A month after graduating with an MBA from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., Sarah Offerman packed up and moved across the country to look for work in one of America’s fastest-growing job markets: Seattle.
She would have liked to have stayed in Grand Rapids. It was her home for 10 years, and an easy drive to her parents in Northern Michigan. But the urge to move came when she was turned down for a mailroom job.
“I went through three interviews, and in the end I wasn’t qualified enough, with my MBA,” Offerman, 28, said at a recent job fair in Kent, where she browsed some 70 booths promoting careers in education, government, health care and corporate sales. “There’s just more optimism here.”
Recent data support Offerman’s decision to uproot herself and give it a go in Seattle: Local joblessness dropped to 4.7 percent in June from 7.2 percent a year ago, the state Employment Security Department reported Wednesday.
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The Seattle-area economy now has recovered 99 percent of the 123,800 jobs it lost in the Great Recession and is on track to return to pre-recession levels by year’s end, if not sooner.
Combined, King and Snohomish counties are adding jobs at an estimated annual rate of 2.8 percent, better than Atlanta, Boston and Chicago, not to mention Grand Rapids.
But whether Offerman lands on her feet depends to some extent on a less-competitive hiring climate for job seekers. Four years after the end of the worst recession since the Great Depression, employers still can afford to be picky.
There are at least three unemployed workers for every job opening in the western U.S. And if you take into account people who can only find part-time work or are too discouraged to even look for a job, the state’s unemployment rate exceeds 16 percent.
What’s more, broad-based job stats tell only part of Seattle’s economic story.
The local jobs recovery varies widely across sectors, and workers with skills in engineering and other technical fields reap the most rewards.
Jobs tend to be less plentiful, and less lucrative, for other types of workers.
Three of the five local sectors that best weathered the recession and its difficult aftermath are technology- and Internet-related. Their workers, on average, earn between $116,000 and $220,000 a year, according to an analysis of state and federal data by Economic Modeling Specialists International, a labor-market data-research firm in Moscow, Idaho.
Led by Amazon.com and Google, jobs at e-commerce and Internet search companies never really declined in the economic downturn and are way ahead of where they were before the recession.
Other sectors, such as savings institutions (think Washington Mutual), shed more than half their jobs and might not ever fully recover.
Meanwhile, public spending cuts on the state and local level are chipping away at government payrolls. Construction jobs remain well below their pre-recession peak, despite a recent upturn in hiring.
And aircraft manufacturing, the region’s largest source of job creation since 2007, with 16,430 new hires, faces an uncertain future amid a series of layoffs at Boeing. The company employed 85,100 people statewide at the end of June, a decrease of nearly 1,300 from late January.
“We’re going to keep hiring, but we also need to adjust in specific areas of the business,” said Boeing spokesman Stephen Davis.
In Kent, Offerman waited in line for more than two hours to talk to a Boeing recruiter at a July 9 job fair sponsored by the University of Phoenix. Her chosen field is human-resource management, and she learned that to work at Boeing, she’ll probably need special certification.
“They have enough candidates that they can be selective. Makes sense,” she said. “It’s all about being adaptable.”
Indeed, as of Friday, Boeing had only 120 job openings available in Washington state and many more people anxious to apply. Worldwide, the company says it received 2.3 million applications last year.
“We can be choosy because we have those long lines,” Davis said.
About 1,500 King County residents exhausted their regular unemployment benefits in May, most likely because they were unable to find work within 26 weeks of losing their jobs.
Nearly 10,450 people received federal extension benefits as they entered their seventh, eighth or ninth month of joblessness.
Michelle McClendon, a single mom of two teenagers in Federal Way, says she’s been looking more than a year for a full-time job in the health-care sector. She currently works part time for a local nonprofit that helps women find jobs.
“I’ve been on tons and tons of interviews,” she said. “They tell you they’ll call you next week, and then next week comes and you hear nothing. A lot of times I get, ‘We’re still interviewing candidates.’ It’s very competitive.”
Economists believe hiring in the most dynamic sectors eventually will spill over to the rest of the economy as more well-paid workers move to Seattle.
Education and health care already show solid job growth over the past three years.
Jobs for nannies, maids, gardeners and other workers at private households posted the second-largest increase between 2007 and 2013, up 8,520, or 57 percent.
General merchandise stores employ 2,300 more people than a year ago, a 12 percent increase.
“As long as you’re employed and making a high wage, you’re going to be buying a lot of stuff,” said Hank Robison, co-founder and chief economist at Economic Modeling Specialists. “You’re going to have perhaps a personal trainer and a hotshot road bike. You may upgrade your housing and buy a couple of expensive coffee drinks a day.”
The growth of low-wage service jobs might not sound great, he said, but it’s better than the alternative: a sluggish economy that sells fewer goods and services to the outside world and requires fewer workers to serve the local population.
“It would be better if we all could be professionals and draw a large income. That said, if you’re going to be in a resident-serving economy, you’re better off in the Puget Sound,” Robison said. “You’re going to have a better income than if you’re a personal trainer, say, in Detroit.”
At 4.7 percent, Seattle’s unemployment rate is at a level that historically has signaled a robust economy. In May, local joblessness fell below 5 percent for the first time since the recession, plunging 2.6 percentage points from a year ago.
That was the largest year-over-year decline among 34 U.S. metro divisions.
Initial unemployment claims, while above pre-recession levels, are half of what they were in 2009.
Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist at the state Employment Security Department, points to another positive sign: job creation that’s strong enough to pull discouraged workers back into the labor force.
Between 2009 and 2012, the local labor force increased by just two-tenths of a percent as unemployed workers became discouraged and stopped looking for jobs. Now, the labor force is up 2.4 percent from a year ago.
“So far in 2013, every month has been better than the corresponding month in 2012,” Vance-Sherman said. “All signs point to a consistent recovery.”
If no one seems to be jumping for joy, she said, it’s because of how bad the recession was and how long it lasted.
“Emotionally, it was a really hard fall, and it’s taken so long” to come out of it, she said.
Brian Scheffer oversees his own economic indicator as the organizer of biweekly networking events for job seekers in Bellevue.
Scheffer recalls that when he joined two years ago, meet-ups were weekly and turnout was three times as large as it is today.
“Most everybody in my group has gone on and landed positions related to their field,” he said.
But Scheffer himself has struggled to find steady employment and a lucrative paycheck. He lost his job when the tax-software company he worked for was bought by a competitor and closed down. He now drives a charter bus and hopes to develop a software startup.
“I’m a product manager, and companies tell me, ‘We want someone with experience in our market.’ It’s very picky,” Scheffer said. “You’ll see job postings that say, ‘We want an Android developer with five years of experience.’ And they may not get a lot of applicants, because the Android operating system is not much older than five years.”
As for Offerman, she moved to Seattle via train last month and shares a sparsely furnished apartment with two friends in Lynnwood. She’s giving herself until the end of the year to find a job and begin paying down her considerable student-loan debt.
Seeing dozens of other people standing in line for a Boeing job was a bit of a wake-up call, she said, but she remains hopeful.
“Even though there’s more competition, it feels like it’s the right place to be,” she said. “There are jobs out there. You just have to be willing to work hard.”
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @amyemartinez