When some employees at Baxter Construction moved on to other jobs earlier this year, owner Brice Baxter waited to replace them, thinking the rest of his staff could handle the workload.
But the Yakima construction firm lined up so much work in subsequent monts that Baxter himself ended up swinging the hammer for a few projects.
“We’ve definitely worked overtime,” he said. “We’ve had people in the field (warehouse workers) that would normally not be in the field.”
Now the company is actively hiring.
“It would be nice to have a few more experienced people,” Baxter said.
An increase in construction jobs contributed to job growth and falling unemployment in Yakima County during the first half of 2014, according to figures from the state Employment Security Department.
In June, the county unemployment rate dropped to 6.2 percent — the lowest rate for the month since 2008, when it was 6.5 percent.
In fact, the county has racked up a 19-month streak of job growth, regional economist Don Meseck said.
Granted, the growth has not been as robust as the rest of the state. The county’s job growth rate has hovered around the 1 percent mark for much of this year, while the state has been well above 2 percent.
But after years of either flat or negative growth, 19 months of modest growth is a positive, Meseck said.
“We’re still looking at more good than bad,” he said.
And Meseck noted several sectors that have experienced much more robust job growth with Yakima County.
In June, the construction sector in Yakima County reported 3,600 jobs, an increase of 9.1 percent, or 300 jobs, from a year ago.
The figure is preliminary and will likely be revised downward, but there is no doubt the industry has seen solid growth, Meseck said.
In 2011, construction had an annual average loss of 300 jobs and was flat in 2012. Last year the sector saw an increase of 100 jobs and is in line to see a greater increase for 2014, Meseck said.
“The growth trends look pretty encouraging,” he said.
The brightened job picture reflects a busy six months for construction companies, said Baxter, the owner of Baxter Construction.
Just this week, the company secured a contract it estimated for the customer more than a year ago. Also this week, the company landed a second contract for a project it penciled out nearly two years ago.
“Projects that we thought were long dead are coming back,” Baxter said.
Other sectors seeing growth so far in 2014 include retail trade, leisure and hospitality, health services and local government.
Yakima County has seen an increase in retail jobs for nine consecutive months, according to Employment Security figures. In June, the number of jobs increased by nearly 6 percent year-over-year to 10,800. That was also nearly two percentage points more than the 4 percent increase seen statewide.
Allie Stewart, general manager at the Valley Mall in Union Gap, attributes the growth to new retail offerings, such as Cabela’s.
“Naturally, as new businesses come in, the job opportunities increase,” she said.
And with larger retailers, such as J.C. Penney and Cabela’s, there are also opportunities in management, marketing and facilities management along with sales positions, she said.
Leisure and hospitality also saw sizable gains during the first half of 2014. In June, the sector reported about 7,300 jobs in Yakima County, an increase of 7.4 percent from a year ago.
The increase in hospitality jobs in Yakima County seems to mirror the trend nationwide, said John Cooper, CEO of Yakima Valley Tourism.
Cooper pointed to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, which reported that in May, the travel industry added 19,200 new jobs, the largest monthly increase since October 2013.
But he didn’t have many details on local hiring trends.
“I’ve heard from a number of folks that it’s been a busy summer,” he said. “How that’s translated to added employment, I can’t say.”
Local government and health services had less robust growth, with year-over-year increases of 1.5 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively, in June. Both sectors still outpaced the overall county growth rate of 0.5 percent.
Meseck said while the numbers have been positive for Yakima County so far in 2014, it was still too early to determine whether the job market has recovered.
Preliminary estimates, such as the figures reported in June, can be revised downward as Employment Security receives additional data.
“It will take a few (more) months of data for me to make that statement,” he said.