"Plenty of work, not much cash"

"For those who work for a living, the employment market on Island County is not a pretty picture. At least not according to the latest statistics from the state Employment Security Department, which are for 1997 and do not include active duty Navy members.People who work in Island County make, on average, about $9,000 a year less than the average statewide wage.From 1971 to 1997, the average wage in Island County dropped by more than $4,000 — in 1997 dollars — when the figures are adjusted for inflation, from $25,027 to $21,000 a year. That’s a 16 percent drop.At the same time, the county’s unemployment is currently near an all-time low of 3.4 percent.So what’s going on?Sharleen Eller, assistant director of the Island District Economic Development Council, said the island’s relatively low-wage employment mix likely stems from a combination of factors, including the lack of big industry, the proliferation of small businesses, a high number of skilled people who work in other counties, infrastructure limitations, and transportation problems.In other words, it’s a fact of life on an island.Local developer and surveyor Robert Fakkema agrees. “We earn less here,” he said. “It’s the price you pay for living up here.”Many of the large businesses that offer high-paying jobs simply would not be a good fit for Island County, Eller said. The area is scenic and environmentally sensitive, so any industry that pollutes is out. Transportation to and from Whidbey Island is limited and expensive, so large manufacturers are out.In addition, water is limited, while electricity and phone lines are not always reliable.The lack of jobs and a high number of people looking for work also can drive wages down, she said.A report by the state Job Security Department, which can be viewed on the internet at, states that the main reason for the “degradation of wages” in Island County is the shift from “high paying goods-producing jobs to low paying trade and service jobs.”Yet Eller also said the statistics can be misleading. The state statistics only take into account jobs that are covered by unemployment benefits, which does not include active-duty Navy, self-employed people or consultants. They also don’t take benefits into account.In addition, she said the local unemployment rate has historically been under-reported. Depending on what state they are from, Eller said Navy dependents are either not eligible for unemployment benefits or don’t think they are, so they don’t register as unemployed. And then they aren’t counted.According to the state statistics, there were less than 14,000 civilians in the Island County labor force in 1997. That’s in a county of nearly 70,000 people.Here’s a look at numbers by industry (All figures are stated in 1997 dollars):RETAIL TRADEIsland County average wage in 1997: $13,144State average wage in 1997: $16,821Avg. number of employees in 1997 in county: 3,188 Job growth in county from 1971 to 1994: 300 percentJob growth over same period in state: 135 percentThe greatest increase in jobs in Island County over the last two decades occured in low-paying job sectors, and the retail trade sector has the lowest wages of any type of industry. This sector consists of retail stores, wholesale stores, grocery stores, auto dealers and restaurants.Several local fast food restaurant managers reported that employees’ wages start at minimum wage, which is currently $5.70 an hour. Diane Grier, the manager at Arby’s, said she never advertises open jobs because she always has a proliferation of applications to choose from. Her employees, most of whom are part-time, include five active-duty Navy people and two Navy dependents. The average salary of her crew is $6.27 an hour.CONSTRUCTIONAvg. wage in Island County in 1997: $24,045Avg. wage in state in 1997: $32,600Avg. number of employees in 1997 in county: 749County employment in the construction industry from 1970 to 1994 grew “an astonishing 276 percent,” the Employment Security Department reported. Over the same period, the statewide growth was 121 percent. The sector includes general builders, heavy construction and the trades — carpentry, plumbing, masonry, and so on.However, county workers earn $9,000 a year less than the statewide average, according to state numbers.Fakkema said the proliferation of construction jobs is due to the population growth and development in the local area, as well as the entire northwest United States. While many people are being hired at the low-paying, entry-level wage, he said skilled workers are hard to find.“Finding good people is just a bearcat,” he said, adding that the problem may be magnified on the island since skilled people may be lured away.GOVERNMENTGovernment employment in county: 4,295County avg. wage, federal government in 1997: $29,114Avg.wage statewide for federal gov. in 1997: $41,936 Local government avg. wage in Island County in 1997: $27,191Without a doubt, at the heart of North Whidbey’s economy today lies the Department of Defense. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station has a $300 million annual payroll, with about 8,000 active duty and 1,200 civilian employees, according to the state. Aside from the Navy, nearly a third of those employed in Island County in 1997 worked for the government."

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