After another year of employment stability, Washington economists predict more of the same in 2020.
“We’ve continued to see pretty consistent growth and strong momentum, particularly in the Seattle metropolitan area,” says Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist with the state’s Employment Security Department. “I would expect to see the growth slow as a result of the unemployment rate being as low as it is, but so far, everything has pointed to a very stable and wide-reaching labor market.”
Over the past year, Washington’s ranking in economic growth and competitiveness rose from fifth highest to fourth highest in the nation, according to a September study prepared by the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. Separate ESD data reported that Washington added 52,500 jobs between October 2018 and October 2019, with 41,600 of those jobs in the Seattle metro area.
“When we’re looking at employment growth in the Seattle metro area, we’ve been predicting a slowdown, but it’s really been a very consistent story where we’re continuing to see about 3% year-over-year growth,” Vance-Sherman says.
The ESD projects that information, health services, goods producing and professional and business services will drive employment in 2020.
Technology leads the job market
The information sector continues to dominate the state’s labor market, adding 11,300 jobs between October 2018 and October 2019.
“I certainly think that technology will still continue to be at the forefront to drive hiring in this region and keep unemployment very low throughout the entirety of 2020,” says Megan Slabinski, a district president with staffing firm Robert Half. “We’ve got a lot of hiring happening in that space between several of the large companies that have moved in and also those that have been here for a longstanding period. So that’s absorbing a great deal of talent.”
Tech job availability is expected to grow by 3.42% statewide and by 4% percent in King County in 2020 — figures that Vance-Sherman notes may not fully encapsulate the reach of high-tech employment across all industries.
“There’s not really a high-tech sector, per se; it’s not an industry as we code industries,” she says. “But we do see a lot of technical expertise and computer-focused jobs show up in a couple different industries in the Seattle area.”
Those industries include information, retail, and professional and business services, which also opens the door to a broad range of consulting work, Vance-Sherman says.
“So those are three industries that you’re going to see a lot of growth in the Seattle area that really point to an influx of ‘tech workers,’”she says.
Online retail pressures brick-and-mortar stores
Seattle is a mecca for online retailers, accounting for 88% of statewide nonstore retail employment thanks to locally based companies such as Amazon, Blue Nile and Zulily. And while nonstore retailing was the single largest contributor to Washington’s above-average economic performance in 2019, according to the ERFC, growth is slowing a bit.
“With the exception of technology-related hiring, I think retail didn’t fare as strongly as anticipated this year,” Slabinski says. “Consumer spending has stayed very strong, but the overall sector has been more challenged this year.”
Local stores are likely to suffer in the shadow of selling giants, says Steve Lerch, the executive director and chief economist at the ERFC.
“Brick-and-mortar retailers are having a tough time competing with online, and I think that’s probably not very surprising,” he says. “We have strong employment growth in online retail, although we do have [a projection] that it’s slowing down [this] year.”
The difference can be seen in community numbers. Between October 2018 and October 2019, the retail market added 4,900 jobs in King County, but lost 400 in Snohomish County. While Seattle retail is expected to hold steady compared to last year’s projections, statewide growth from 2018 into the second quarter of 2020 will fall to 1.12%.
Construction growth stabilizes
Washington continues to lead the nation in construction employment, but growth has slowed significantly, with the state adding 11,600 fewer jobs between October 2018 and October 2019 compared to the same period the previous year. While growth isn’t as high as years prior, Vance-Sherman says the shift is predictable.
“I think we’re at this point where things have stabilized; that’s the word I would use as far as the construction employment levels are concerned,” she says. “Shortly after the recession, we had a combination of tough demand in addition to an already fast-growing area. So at this point, we have a very high level of construction employment that’s not growing per se — it’s shifting. We’ve got some projects sunsetting and others starting up. We’re still seeing a lot of cranes in the air.”
Although statewide construction is expected to decline 1.7% by the second quarter of 2020, ESD data predicts a 2.28% increase in King County jobs throughout the year. Gains in Snohomish and Pierce counties will be slightly less, both right around 2%.
Aerospace employment a waiting game
It’s been a difficult year for Boeing. The 737 MAX jet remains grounded and production will soon be halted in Renton. The company has said approximately 3,000 workers — those directly involved in manufacturing, engineering and parts fabrication — will be temporarily reassigned.
Despite the ongoing turmoil, aerospace added 3,900 jobs statewide over the past year. Lerch says employment stability for 2020 is still a waiting game.
“[In 2019], we’ve seen actually pretty good growth in aerospace employment, but we’re assuming that the level it’s at in the fourth quarter of  is going to flatten out,” he says. “So we’re looking for that growth to stop, but some of that is going to depend very heavily on what happens related to the 737 MAX.”
Statewide aerospace employment growth is expected to slow to 0.24% by the second quarter of 2020.
Low unemployment yields a changing landscape
State unemployment rose slightly to 4.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, after reaching a record low of 4.4% in 2018. King and Snohomish counties reported much lower rates at 2.7% and 3%, while Pierce County’s unemployment was 5.1%.
The ERFC’s November 2019 forecast predicts that the statewide unemployment rate will hold steady at 4.5% in 2020 despite slowing growth. Lerch attributes the numbers to a diminished candidate pool.
“[In 2019] both nationally and in Washington, we’ve had a lot of growth and employment, and we’ve had unemployment rates really come down, and one of the things that you start to see is that there are literally fewer people to hire,” he says.
Slabinski believes the changing landscape may push employers to become more proactive in terms of hiring and staff retention.
“I think that the market demand is growing much faster than the availability of talent,” she says, “and it continues to surprise me that despite all the data points and all the media coverage around unemployment rates and around the shortage of available talent, that we don’t see more companies getting creative in terms of attracting the skill sets they’re seeking.”
A 2019 Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey reported hiring difficulties for employers thanks to a competitive talent environment. About 93% of companies surveyed said it was difficult to find skilled candidates for professional-level positions, resulting in staffing lag times of four weeks or more.
Companies searching for qualified staff in 2020 will likely contend with higher overhead costs. Between June 2018 and June 2019, average weekly wages increased by 6.7% in King County, 3.4% in Snohomish County and 5.1% in Pierce County, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Skilled worker scarcity combined with low unemployment presents a wealth of opportunity for motivated job seekers, Slabinski says. “I would say the overall tone of Washington’s 2020 employment market is very optimistic,” she says. “Job candidates are still in the driver’s seat.”