Island County needs more workers, higher paying jobs, report says

Island County’s economy needs younger workers, according to a recent draft report.

A consultant and county planning staff presented an economic trends and conditions report to the commissioners last Wednesday as an early step in preparation for updating the economic development element of the county’s comprehensive plan.

The nearly 60-page document aggregated and analyzed several sets of data and analyzed how the county might want to address the issues brought up strategically.

Much of Island County’s population growth is comprised of older adults with higher incomes moving to rural areas, the report states. The cities and towns tend to attract households with lower ages and lower incomes. Residents over 60 have accounted for 98 percent of countywide population growth since 1990.

The economic conditions vary significantly throughout the county and Whidbey Island.

North Whidbey has the highest unemployment rate at 7.3 percent and the highest poverty rate at 12.2 percent. Poverty is most extreme for people under 18 on the north end, with a rate of 18.5.

About 8 percent of residents in Langley and Freeland are living in poverty, with higher rates for children. Clinton has the lowest rate of poverty and unemployment at 4.8 and 2.4 respectively.

Clinton’s easier access to higher paying jobs off island might be a reason for the lower rates, according to the report.

Civilian jobs in the county are primarily in local government, health care and education. Arts, hospitality and entertainment also make up a significant portion. Wages from jobs within the county are lower than state averages by approximately $26,000, the report states.

Retail sales have gone up in the island but retail employment has remained stagnant. Approximately 92 percent of businesses in the county have 10 or fewer employees.

The recession hit Island County harder and it took longer for it to recover compared to the state; it wasn’t until 2016 that the county employment growth caught up to the state’s.

The consultants from Community Attributes Incorporated that created the report, recommended the government look toward expanding smaller industry sectors and diversifying the economy to improve its resiliency during economic hardship. They also discussed with commissioners the importance of supporting the tourism industry without negatively impacting the livability of an area.

For instance, promoting more tourism in the winter months instead of summer.

When the draft report is finalized, planning staff will use it to inform the economic development element of the comprehensive plan. The element serves as a guide in long-range policy making decisions.

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