While unemployment rates are low, hiring struggle continues in Island County

The unemployment rate in Island County in November 2021 was 3.3%, down from 6.4% in November 2020.

Island County’s unemployment rate is lower than it was before the pandemic, according to recent data from the Washington State Employment Security Department, but this doesn’t tell the whole story of the state of work on Whidbey.

Some businesses and organizations are still struggling to attract workers as some Island County residents left the workforce during the pandemic.

Preliminary data from November 2021 showed that the unemployment rate in Island County was 3.3%, down from 6.4% in November 2020. The pandemic unemployment rate peaked in Island County in April 2020 at 16.3%.

Prior to the pandemic, the November 2019 unemployment rate for the county was 4.5%.

Regional labor economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman said the unemployment rate represents the portion of the labor force that is actively seeking employment.

“This flood of job openings means that people who are looking for work are connecting pretty well,” she said.

A low unemployment rate indicates that people who are looking for jobs are finding them, but it does not account for adults who have left the workforce altogether.

Despite ongoing population growth, the growth of the county workforce “paused,” Vance-Sherman said, in part because the pandemic caused some groups to leave the workforce unexpectedly. For some, COVID-19 prompted early retirement. For others, the uncertainty of school and childcare facility openings has prevented some parents from seeking or returning to work.

Workers may also be more inclined to quit voluntarily when unemployment rates are low because they feel confident they will be able to find employment again quickly.

Northwest Workforce Council board member Kevin Corrigan provided additional explanations as to why some people may not be strapping their work boots back on yet.

“Reasons for people’s slowness in returning to the labor market this time (as opposed to in aftermath of previous recessions) include fear of COVID, supplemental unemployment insurance benefits, discouragement over job prospects and available opportunities, severed relationships, retirements and a more general reassessment on the place of work in their lives,” he wrote in an email.

Whatever the reasons for the low number of job seekers, businesses and organizations on Whidbey are feeling the crunch. Employers are facing two concurrent challenges, Vance-Sherman explained. One is that they must ramp up their number of workers as the economy recovers from the pandemic. Unlike after typical downturns, however, employers don’t have the boon of a large number of workers seeking employment, meaning they must also compete for a dwindling pool of prospective employees.

On the South End, the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route has suffered long waits and reduced sailings for months as Washington State Ferries struggles to hire and retain workers.

In Oak Harbor, the school district has encountered a shortage of bus drivers during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19, coupled with regular illnesses and absences, has exacerbated our existing driver shortage in Oak Harbor this week and we anticipate this to continue during this school year,” read an email sent to district families shortly after the New Year.

Though no routes have been canceled yet, that is a possibility if the district can’t hire more substitute drivers soon.

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on South Whidbey fought to retain as much of its workforce as possible when the pandemic first hit. Corrigan, who is also the human resources director of Nichols Brothers, said that when the project pipeline dried up at the beginning of the pandemic, the company struggled to find work for its employees.

“We dealt with the challenging reduced workload environment by dialing up our pursuit and acquisition of collaborative ventures with customers and even competitors in our industry that has allowed us to deploy our people to their significant and exciting projects,” he said.

Now that the company is taking on more of its own projects again, the struggle to recruit workers is “as challenging as it has been advertised,” Corrigan said.

Even after re-hiring some of the workers who were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, and despite the company’s continuous retention efforts, Nichols Brothers is actively recruiting experienced journeyman shipbuilders, crane operators, electricians and support staff.

Corrigan said the company has had to be “creative and aggressive” in the competition for workers, advertising increased schedule flexibility, meeting applicants for interviews in the evenings or over the weekend and accepting walk-in interviews.

Even businesses that haven’t experienced a drastic labor crunch have noticed a change. Leah Norton-Gaudreau, north regional manager of Whidbey Coffee, said that though all positions at the company’s on-island locations are currently filled, it didn’t receive quite the influx of prospective baristas that it has in the past.

“We thankfully have not encountered difficulty finding employees on island the last few months, as our hiring needs have been in line with what we project for a typical year,” she wrote in an email. “However, we have seen a slight decrease in applicants if a position opens.”

The recent spike in COVID cases caused by the omicron variant has put additional strain on understaffed agencies, such as the WhidbeyHealth hospital district. Hospital officials reported staffing shortages in several departments, including nursing and IT, during a hospital board meeting Jan. 20.

“We are in a staffing crisis, no doubt about it,” WhidbeyHealth CEO Ron Telles said. “We have staff shortages. We had staff shortages before omicron, and now we have them with (employees) calling in sick.”

Chief Nursing Officer Erin Wooley said the hospital has had 5-8% of its staff out sick with COVID at any given point over the last couple of weeks.

Staff shortages at the hospital have resulted in training programs and some elective services being postponed, officials reported in the meeting.

Photo provided
Dave Summerland welds aluminum at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders’ Freeland facility.

Photo provided Dave Summerland welds aluminum at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders’ Freeland facility.