Statewide labor economist sees no storms looming as March unemployment rate holds stead at 4.8 percent.

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A snapshot of the Washington labor market in March showed a slight slowdown in the pace of job creation, but zoom out to the first quarter of 2018 and one of the nation’s strongest statewide economies continues its run unabated.

“Employment is growing at a rate of about 2.9 percent, which is good,” said Paul Turek, statewide economist with the Employment Security Department. “Anytime you get near 3 percent, you’re doing well from a jobs standpoint.”

Statewide, employers added 3,900 nonfarm jobs from February to March, according to preliminary estimates from a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. The year-over-year increase was 93,500 jobs.

The state’s strong economy continues to attract workers, which has helped employers fill open positions and kept the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate steady. It was 4.8 percent in March, just as it was a year earlier.

While March job growth was a little slower than it had been the first two months of the year, Turek said job growth through the first quarter taken as a whole was ahead of last year’s pace. Moreover, he sees nothing in the reams of economic and labor data to suggest that changing in the near future.

“We don’t have any storms looming on the horizon,” Turek said.

In the Seattle area, including Bellevue and Everett, the civilian labor force and total employment increased by almost the same amount in the 12 months through March. The local area unemployment rate was 3.8 percent.

The strength in the economies of counties surrounding Puget Sound helps lower the statewide unemployment rate and covers over the fact that 21 of Washington’s 39 counties are considered “distressed” – that is, their unemployment rates (averaged over three years and not adjusted for seasonal changes) are at least 20 percent higher than comparable statewide figure of 5.2 percent.

That pejorative descriptor doesn’t mean things are so bad in the rural counties of Washington. While finding work in a place like Ferry County, with a March unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, the highest in the state, is certainly a tougher task, the distressed counties list is meant to help. It’s a measure of the relative strength of local labor economies for purposes of allocating funds for workforce development and job retraining programs, Turek said.

“It separates out the ones that are doing well from the ones that are doing not quite so well,” he said.

Six counties – Pacific, Grays Harbor, Wahkiakum, making up Washington’s southwest corner, and Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry, in its far northeast – had average three-year unemployment rates of 8 percent or more in the latest distressed counties list, released Tuesday. That’s consistent with historic trends, Turek said, noting that rural areas have fewer businesses and jobs to begin with.