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Staff Writer | March 22, 2023 1:51 AM

MOSES LAKE — Despite the rise of manufacturing in the Columbia Basin, farming is still the base for all economic activity in the region. “I think about the economies here (in Grant County) and six of the seven counties I serve, they’re heavily agriculture-based,” said Don Meseck, a labor economist with the Washington State Department of Employment Security in Ellensburg. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have other aspects of the economy, but it does mean that agriculture is a pillar of our local economy.”

Meseck analyzes employment trends in Adams, Grant, Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas, Okanogan and Yakima counties, providing regular reports on how many people are employed, looking for work and are likely no longer looking for work. Of the 22 employment classifications tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — everything from management and professional services to sales to manufacturing — Meseck said that agriculture-related jobs, both on-farm and in food processing and handling, accounted for 22.9% of all jobs in Grant County.

“It’s significant because statewide, we have 2% to 3% of our jobs in agriculture, and nationwide it’s 1%,” he said.

Data provided by Grant County Trends, a website maintained by Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, provides a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the county’s workforce. In 2021, the last year for which the website has complete data, 44,343 people were employed in Grant County, which had a population of just over 100,000 in the same year.

That’s the biggest the county’s workforce has been since 1993, which is as far back as the Grant County Trends website goes.

While agriculture provides nearly one out of every four jobs in Grant County, Meseck said government employment — state, county, city, school and other special districts — accounts for another roughly 20%, while non-agriculturerelated manufacturing in Grant County accounts for around 10% of all jobs in the county.

Agriculture’s share of employment, however, has been slowly falling from 27.7% in 2012 to the current 22.9%, according to the Grant County Trends website. Meseck said much of the job growth in the county over the course of the last ten years has been among professional and technical services — workers in the county’s expanding data centers, for example — construction, health care and local government.

“If I look at our long-term, historical quarterly census, employment, wage data, (then) health services, professional and technical services, construction and local government accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 4,668 jobs added from 2011 to 2021,” Meseck said.

Most industries in Grant County have recovered from the effects of pandemicrelated lockdowns imposed in 2020, Meseck said, and the county’s non-farm employment rate is higher than it was prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. However, some employers have still not recovered from the halt on economic activity imposed in 2020, he said.

“Durable goods manufacturing is still down. Also, we’re down about 360 jobs compared with 2019,” Meseck said.

While he hasn’t crunched the most recent numbers for Adams County, Meseck said the situation there is similar, though with a population of only 20,000 — one-fifth of Grant — Adams County is even more reliant on agriculture, Meseck said.

“It’s even more heavily agriculture-based,” he said. “It has a fairly large manufacturing sector, but 80%-90% of the manufacturing jobs in Adams County are food processing and related, so it’s actually doing quite well.”

“In Adams, agriculture is still king,” Meseck added.

Adams County is not one of the 10 counties tracked by the EWU’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, which compiles demographic, employment and economic activity information for Skagit, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Columbia and Spokane counties.

Patrick Jones, an economist at EWU and executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, said the counties of Eastern Washington have a significant advantage over those of the West Side — the median age of their populations, and thus their workforces, is younger.

“The labor force is a blessing in Central Washington because it is largely young,” he said. “Because of its youth, it’s very engaged in trying to make a living.”

According to Grant County Trends data, the median age of a county resident in 2021 was 33.9 years, whereas the Washington state median was 38.2 years and the national median age was 38.8. Jones said the county’s relative youth was the result of its large Hispanic population, which is also inclined to have a strong work ethic and high labor force participation.

“Culturally, it just has an affinity to work,” he said.

However, Jones also said there has been a steady decline in the last ten years in overall workforce participation — fewer and fewer people are opting for work. The causes are varied, from an aging population, parents leaving the workforce because of COVID-19 to take care of their families, to increasing numbers of people on disability for one reason or another, Jones explained.

“If you go back 10 to 20 years, you will see statewide that we’ve gone from around 70% (workforce participation) to a little above 60%,” he said.

According to figures compiled and published by the Association of Washington Business’s AWB Institute, statewide workforce participation figures fell to 62.2% in 2022 from 67.2% in 2000. During the same period, the institute reported the state’s overall labor force rose to just over 4 million workers in 2022 from just above 3 million in 2000.

Workforce participation in Grant County was at 61.6% in 2022, just a little under the state average, while workforce participation in Adams County was at 67.1%. However, a number of Washington counties — most of them on the Pacific Coast — have workforce participation rates of less than 50%, with the lowest being Wahkiakum County, 34.4%, and Ferry County, 38.1%.

“A shrinking labor force is usually not good economic news,” Meseck said.

Workforce participation matters, Jones said, because while machinery and automation can make a lot of manufacturing more efficient and productive, it isn’t possible to replace people with software or machinery in the service jobs that make up the bulk of employment. A labor pool that cannot keep up with economic growth limits the ability of businesses to hire, and that restricts an
area’s ability to grow, provide economic opportunities for people and allow them to seek better work and increase their incomes.

“The bulk of our economy is not manufacturing, it’s still service. It’s hard to automate service industries. So if we want to expand our economy, then we have to be mindful of the pool of people who can actually join whatever enterprise either grows or comes new to a particular region,” he said.

Meseck said that while there are many good economic indicators in Washington right now, the shrinking labor force, a slight rise in Grant County unemployment figures beginning in late 2022 and reduced hiring of temporary workers all point to a somewhat less promising immediate future.

“That’s usually an indicator when temp agency employment goes up. It means employers are hiring … They basically try out employees to see how they’re working, and if they’re working out, well, they offer them a permanent job with that company. And that’s down right now,” he said.

According to data from the AWB Institute website, unemployment in Grant County in December 2022 was 8.3%, while in Adams County it was 7.6%, compared with a statewide average of 4.4% and a U.S. average of 3.5%.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at