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Economist Sees Glimmer Of Hope In Rural Washington's Rising Unemployment

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"Logging truck near Port Angeles, Washington" by brewbooks. Licensed by CC by 2.0.

September unemployment data released this week seems to show a widening economic gap between struggling small-town Washington and the booming Seattle area.

But there are signs rising unemployment in rural Washington is a result of more people joining the workforce rather than a loss of jobs.

"I feel like it's an optimistic increase in the unemployment rate, if there is such a thing," said labor economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman, of the state's Employment Security Department. "We're not seeing increasing rates of layoffs or anything like that." 

On its face, data released Wednesday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics appears to tell a familiar tale of post-recession Washington.

For years, Seattle and surrounding areas like Bellevue have thrived during a tech and construction boom while the rest of the state -- especially areas historically dependent on timber and mining -- has lagged far behind.

While Seattle's unemployment rate has dropped over the past year to a healthy 4 percent, the other eleven areas surveyed by the federal government are doing the same as or worse than they were last September.

The Longview area had the state's highest unemployment rate, 7.1 percent, unchanged from the prior September.

The Bremerton-Silverdale area saw the largest year-over-year jump in unemployment, from 5 to 5.7 percent. 

Vance-Sherman said state economists have noted unemployment rates tick upward in recent months, after years of gradual improvement. "We've been getting phone calls: 'What's going on here?'" she said. 

But a rising unemployment rate doesn't always mean jobs are disappearing. Sometimes, it means more people are looking for work.

Vance-Sherman said that, while the unemployment rate is rising throughout much of the state, requests for unemployment insurance are not. She also said jobs appear to be growing.

"Even though in some areas that growth is very weak, for the most part we're seeing growth," she said. "So we're not seeing anything that's pointing directly to an oncoming recession or anything like that." 

That could mean people who dropped out of the workforce in discouragement are feeling optimistic enough to enter the job market again. It could also reflect members of the country's largest generation, the millennials, entering the workforce.

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.