Ajsa Suljic is Employment Security’s regional labor economist for Asotin, Benton, Columbia, Garfield, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.
Walla Walla and Columbia County employers added over 220 jobs from December 2013 to December 2014. The job market in the area started improving in November 2013, which marks 14 months of consecutive job growth in the area. This is evidence that the job market is improving with better business confidence to hire, due to larger demand for business products or services.
The unemployment rate in Walla Walla County decreased to 6.7 percent in December 2014, while the Columbia County unemployment rate increased to 11.1 percent, compared to 9.5 percent in December 2013. The increase in the Columbia County unemployment rate is attributed to more individuals coming back into the labor force, which increased by 70 people over the year.
Accelerated movement in 2014 hiring occurred in many industries in Walla Walla and Columbia counties. Trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities firms in the area added over 430 jobs, and leisure and hospitality added 180. Healthcare and social assistance increased by 50 jobs, and professional and business services jumped by 60 jobs over the year.
Local areas had over 770 more residents earning paychecks in December 2014 than there were in December 2013. In the economic business cycle, increased earnings lead to increased consumer confidence and spending; this drives economic growth.
The leisure and hospitality industry showed growth in 2014 for both Walla Walla and Columbia counties. Both counties gained 90 jobs each in 2014. In addition to the job growth, hotel-motel tax distributions to the local entities reported by the Washington State Department of Revenue show 68 percent growth in Columbia and 12 percent in Walla Walla for the reported 11 months in 2014, compared to the same timeframe in 2013.
Some of the growth in Columbia County was due to Portland General Electric’s clean energy wind farm construction. In addition to the local energy sector growth, both Columbia and Walla Walla are seeing more tourists for historic site tours and wine tasting. One example of this is the nine percent increase in tax distributions in 2014 in the City of Walla Walla.
The retail trade industry continues its growth in Walla Walla and Columbia counties as local officials increase their priority to retain local consumer spending within county limits. Both counties added jobs in retail trade, with Walla Walla increasing by 130 jobs, or 5.8 percent, from December 2013 to December 2014.
Total sales and use tax distributions in December 2014 increased by 485 percent in Columbia County and 5 percent in Walla Walla County. Much of the growth in Columbia County was fueled by use tax distributions, while Walla Walla County growth was due to gains in higher taxable sales segments in the retail trade industry.
Walla Walla County gained two car dealerships and multiple smaller retail stores, while Columbia County had wind farm construction projects, as well as an increased interest in locally-owned manufacturing retailers for specialty products and food.