With the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett-area unemployment rate at a 9-year low, and the statewide jobless rate at a historical bottom, a government labor economist says, “We are in a job seeker’s market.”
At a job fair last month in Seattle, Karin Smario spent several hours intently searching — not for a job, but for workers.
Smario, who heads human resources for the Westin and W hotels in Bellevue, had 50 open positions. She hoped to fill some at the hiring event across the lake in downtown Seattle, but as she acknowledged, “There’s a lot of competition for hospitality talent.”
Between the hotel-building boom in Bellevue and all the restaurants in the Greater Seattle area, the crunch that began three or four years ago has accelerated this year, she said.
Jobs added in Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area over 12 months through April:
+46,200up 2.8 percent — the third highest in the nation.
Rise in median hourly wage, 2012-2015:
+10.5% in King County +5.2% in Washington state
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, State Employment Security Department
It’s gotten to the point where Tamara Murphy, owner/chef at Seattle’s Terra Plata restaurant, recently bemoaned on Facebook: “I’d give my right pinkie up for an awesome dishwasher. Where did they all go?”
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With the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett-area unemployment rate at a 9-year low, and the statewide jobless rate at a historical bottom, restaurants and hotels aren’t the only ones scrambling to find enough workers.
“We are in a job-seeker’s market,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist with the state Employment Security Department. “Job seekers are finding it easier to secure employment, and employers are in a position of needing to compete with other employers for qualified candidates.”
Proof: It’s not unusual these days in Seattle and the Eastside to find job postings for dishwashers starting at $14 to $15 an hour.
As competition for workers has increased, some employers at the low end of the wage scale are working to help the unemployed overcome obstacles to getting a job.
At the high end, where signing bonuses have become standard at tech companies, competition for tech talent has gotten so fierce that one company is giving the right hires a $35,000-plus Tesla Model 3.
Finding and keeping staff is their No. 1 business challenge, members of the Washington Hospitality Association said in a recent survey.
As one way of addressing the labor shortage, the association began partnering with the state’s Employment Security Department and Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), as well as the private-public partnership WorkSource, to host hiring events — open to the public — where DSHS clients looking for work are pre-vetted and applicants are offered jobs on the spot if they’re a good fit.
Impediments to taking a job are also cleared away. At the event last month at a downtown Seattle hotel, while HR representatives from restaurants and hotels occupied a few conference rooms, another room was staffed by social-service agencies that assisted job seekers in obtaining reduced-transit-fare Orca Lift cards, child-care vouchers and other services.
Lindsay Buchanan, who heads housekeeping at the W Bellevue, said her hotel is trying to attract workers at such job and career fairs, through social media, and through partnerships with community groups such as Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
“It’s not enough to just post positions,” Buchanan said. “There’s a lot more competition now. A lot more hotels are opening.”
Edwin Ngure, 30, was offered a job on the spot at the hiring event as a cashier at the nonprofit FareStart, which is expandingthe number of restaurants it runs to teach hospitality-industry skills.
Ngure, who has part-time work as a barista and cashier at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel, said it hasn’t been difficult for him to find a job.
“I came to Seattle in 2015 from Dubai,” he said. “I came on a Thursday. By Friday, I got a job.”
Seattle’s wage law
The higher wages in Seattle may also be making it harder to fill positions for businesses there and nearby cities that don’t pay as much.
Under Seattle’s 2014 minimum-wage law, the current minimum ranges from $11 to $15 an hour, depending on the employer’s size and whether it pays medical benefits.
“The companies that are struggling the most — their wages are not up to $15 an hour,” said Aleni Mang, a DSHS caseworker who works with both employers and DSHS clients seeking jobs.
“Those starting at $11.50 an hour — they’re having more problems finding and keeping staff.”
The high cost of living, especially in Seattle and the Eastside, is also making it difficult to find employees.
“It’s a problem in terms of how to attract workers to the Eastside: the transportation issues, the housing issues,” said Ken Kelnhofer, WorkSource Redmond administrator. “It’s just too expensive to live around here.”
Indeed, living in low-income housing in Bellevue is what allowed Quang Nguyen, 47, to take a $13.50-an-hour job as a dishwasher/steward at the W Hotel in Bellevue.
He had worked for higher wages in Seattle, including as a janitor. But he wanted a job that would allow him to take his kids to school in the morning.
After a month of looking, he landed the position at the W Hotel in May.
”I know Seattle pay is very good,” Nguyen said through an interpreter at Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which helped place him in the new job. But “W Hotel provides me with a good work schedule so I can take care of my kids.”
In some industries facing shortages, even jobs that pay fairly well aren’t getting enough applicants.
Local truck drivers typically make $65,000 to $80,000 a year, said Ashley Layton, campus director with Commercial Driver School in Auburn, which teaches students to become professional drivers and places them with local companies.
And yet, “we can’t supply the companies fast enough,” she said. “We get calls from companies — not just for one driver but usually for 10 or more.”
The tech industry, of course, has repeatedly said it needs many more workers than the country can currently produce.
Technology recruiters say that in their field, competition for talented engineers has been heated for years, especially as more companies scramble for software developers with top-notch, and often specific, skills.
Salaries have risen accordingly. The median pay for software engineers, for example, rose 13.1 percent over the last four years to $109,508 in May. That’s compared with median pay in Seattle overall, which rose 9.2 percent over the last four years to $59,246 in May, according to data from jobs site Glassdoor.
Seattle’s F5 Networks has already hired 100 people this year, and will likely keep up the quick pace as it plans a move to a new headquarters downtown. The city’s tightening tech-talent market has “led us to be increasingly aggressive in our recruiting,” said Ben Martin, vice president of recruiting for F5.
One tactic: Participating in a statewide apprenticeship program — the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Apprenti program — to help attract talent, albeit talent that will need to be trained internally.
The program places chosen candidates within a local company as full-time employees, making 60 percent of the position’s full salary while they are trained. It focuses on recruiting women, people of color and veterans — groups underrepresented within the technology industry. In less than a year, Apprenti has received 1,400 applications and 55 candidates have been accepted and placed in companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Avvo.
Other companies are taking a more extravagant tack to hire technical employees. Axon, formerly known as Taser, is expanding its software division in Seattle and offers a Tesla Model 3 to new hires who meet eligibility requirements.
Despite the frenzied demand at tech companies, there’s a catch: They are looking for increasingly specialized workers with an exact mix of skills in a fast-changing industry.
That leads to the ironic result that tech workers also are the No. 2 category (behind managers) among people qualifying for unemployment benefits at WorkSource Redmond, said Kelnhofer, the administrator there. “They’re between contracts or jobs.”
Those tech workers seem to get work pretty steadily but they may need retraining or repackaging before they do, he said.
Tech companies also hire highly skilled workers from abroad on H-1B visas. In Washington state, leading applicants were Microsoft, which sought 4,294 H-1B visas last year, and Amazon, with 2,552.
That’s not to say that the labor market is tight in all industries. Manufacturing is suffering job losses, largely due to cuts in aerospace, more specifically Boeing, which has been shrinking steadily.
Between October 2012 and the end of May, the jet maker shed more than 18,300 jobs in the state.
The engineering union SPEEA now devotes a page on its website to helping members contact engineering companies in other states that are trying to recruit laid-off Boeing staff.
At the hundreds of smaller aerospace companies in the state, the picture is much more mixed.
Some Boeing suppliers have been hit by the downturn in widebody-jet production in Everett. Others are ramping up to feed the accelerating production of the 737 assembly plant in Renton. And aviation companies that service the existing fleets of commercial jets are busy as airlines hold on to older planes for longer, requiring upgrades and maintenance.
John Thornquist, director of the Governor’s Office of Aerospace, said he’s seeing growth at the lower tiers of the aerospace supply chain, “though not on the same scale as the Boeing reductions.”
Still, even in the aerospace sector, there’s high demand in some areas.
John Bonner, vice president of corporate and workforce training at Everett Community College, said the students coming out of its programs with aviation and advanced manufacturing skills are in high demand.
“Those are all very hot areas,” he said. “Employers are working with us to hire students at a pace we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Manufacturing was the only major industry in King and Snohomish counties to report a year-over-year job loss, said Vance-Sherman, the regional labor economist. Statewide, the only shrinking sectors were manufacturing and mining or logging.
Is this rosy picture for job seekers likely to dim?
Probably not anytime soon.
Washington employment is expected to grow 2.4 percent this year, according to the June preliminary forecast from the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.
In King County, the unemployment rate is unlikely to dip below the 2.8 percent it reached in April, said Dave Reich, chief economist for the county.
In addition, he said, “we’ve been growing our number of jobs over 3 percent for several years now. That’s rapid for us. I wouldn’t be surprised if that pace slowed a little bit.”
Still, Reich said, “On the street, you’re still going to feel like it’s a job seeker’s market.”