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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jobless rate hits new low; Seattle sizzles

Seattle Times business reporter

The region's unemployment hasn't been this low in at least 24 years, so it's no wonder Steve Singh is straining to fill openings at Concur Technologies, his Redmond-based software company.

Concur, which creates software that businesses use to track expenses and book travel, has about two dozen immediate job openings locally and hopes to boost its local payroll by about 50 positions over the next year, chief executive Singh said in a recent interview.

"We'd love to find more accounting and finance and [research and development] people in the Seattle area," Singh said.

But there's a lot of competition for those folks and other white-collar workers -- a key contributor to the local area's 3.8 percent unemployment rate in April. That's the lowest unemployment in the Seattle metro area -- defined as King and Snohomish counties -- since at least 1983, as far back as figures are available.

The statewide unemployment rate also fell to a record low last month, reaching 4.4 percent, the state Employment Security Department said Tuesday. That's its lowest point since the current unemployment statistics began in 1976.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, Washington's unemployment rate was below the national level, which was 4.5 percent last month.

In the fourth year of Washington's economic expansion, the Seattle metro area has reclaimed its status as the state's job-growth engine, according to another set of data released Tuesday. Payroll-jobs data show that most of the state's employment gains occurred in King and Snohomish counties, where 4,300 jobs were added, mostly in fields such as software, education, health care and professional services.

There were a few other hot spots. Spokane, Whatcom, Yakima and Cowlitz counties -- the only areas outside King and Snohomish counties to see an increase -- gained a combined 1,800 jobs.

But the rest of the state lost a combined 3,200 payroll jobs, for a net gain of 2,900 payroll jobs last month.

Washington wasn't the only Northwest state to get good jobs news this week. Oregon on Monday reported that its April unemployment rate fell to 5.1 percent, its lowest level since December 2000.

The government determines the unemployment rate primarily through a survey that asks people if they are working or actively looking for work -- not, as often thought, by counting how many people receive unemployment-insurance benefits. The statewide figure is adjusted to even out purely seasonal factors.

But the record-low unemployment rates come as new hiring is slowing.

"When you're in a booming economy, at some point things are going to slow down," said Evelina Tainer, the state's chief labor economist. But "on the whole, the first four months of 2007 have been pretty decent."

Professional and business services, a broad category of mostly white-collar employers, once again posted the state's biggest job gain -- up 2,100 jobs in the month, led by an 1,100-job increase in employment services.

In the Seattle area, professional and business services added a seasonally adjusted 1,800 new jobs in April, mostly in professional, scientific and technical fields, regional labor economist Cristina Gonzalez said. The information sector gained 400 new jobs over the month, almost entirely among software companies.

The construction industry statewide gained back the 900 jobs it lost in March, as work on condos, commercial buildings and public infrastructure projects help cushion a slowdown in single-family-home building. In the Seattle area, 200 new construction jobs were added.

Despite a 200-job gain in aerospace, overall manufacturing employment in the state fell for the second month in a row, mainly due to 900 jobs lost in food processing. Several other key industrial sectors -- retail trade, information, financial services, education and health services -- were essentially flat.

Though metro Seattle is leading the state in job growth now, Tainer pointed out that for much of the latest recession-recovery cycle, the metro area lagged the rest of Washington.

Payroll employment in King and Snohomish counties peaked in December 2000 at 1,416,600, then dropped off sharply as the dot-com collapse and the post-9/11 aerospace recession slammed the region. The Seattle area didn't surpass its pre-recession employment high until July 2006.

As of April, the total number of people working in the metro area is 1,454,000.

Drew DeSilver: 206-464-3145 or ddesilver@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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