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Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Job growth shifts downward again

Seattle Times business reporter

How eager is Union Pacific to hire new workers? The Omaha, Neb.-based railroad has sent out postcards to households in the Northwest and across its 23-state service territory, inviting recipients to apply for entry-level jobs in its rail yards.

UP expects to hire 3,000 to 4,500 people nationally this year — compared with its usual 750 to 1,000.

That's due to heavier-than-normal retirements, stemming from an easing of retirement rules, and what spokesman Mark Davis called the railroad's "continued record amount of traffic."

Union Pacific's 172 train-service openings in Washington and Oregon are welcome news, as the latest jobs figures give new evidence the Northwest economies are slowing from last year's strong growth pace.

The state Employment Security Department said Tuesday that Washington's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 5.3 percent in July, its highest point since November.

As recently as March, the unemployment rate — a widely tracked, albeit flawed, measure of economic health — stood at 4.6 percent.

While July's 0.2 percentage point increase in the jobless rate (from 5.1 percent in June) was not statistically significant in itself, department economist Evelina Tainer said, the rising trend over the past several months bears watching.

Though the state gained 8,700 jobs last month compared with June, jobs numbers for the first six months of the year were revised sharply downward.

The average monthly gain for the first half of 2006, previously reported as 6,900 jobs, now stands at 5,400 jobs. By contrast, the average monthly gain for all of 2005 was 7,200 jobs.

Despite the slowdown in gains, Tainer said, "On the whole I think the numbers are still looking pretty good. In the long-term perspective, we really have had very good job growth."

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Washington's numbers came out a day after Oregon's, and the Beaver State showed a similar pattern: The number of jobs rose but so did the unemployment rate, to 5.6 percent.

The national rate for July, by comparison, was 4.8 percent.

The jobs picture, often muddy at best because of multiple surveys and sets of data, was extra-murky in July because of the data revisions, part of the department's quarterly rebenchmarking process.

One thing was clear, though: the continued dominance of the Puget Sound region.

Statewide, the number of Washingtonians with jobs grew 1.7 percent between July 2005 and July 2006.

But in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, employment was up 3.5 percent, while employment actually fell 0.3 percent in the rest of the state.

Wholesale and retail trade in the state showed the biggest job drops last month, respectively losing 800 and 1,000 jobs, since June.

Tainer speculated that might reflect consumers cutting back on their discretionary spending in the face of near-record fuel prices.

"We can't really control how much gasoline we buy — we need to drive to get to work — but we can control how many pieces of clothing we buy," she said.

Education, both public and private, posted the strongest gains in the month, a total of 6,200 jobs. However, Tainer questioned whether that was due more to the quirks of the seasonal-adjustment process than real growth, noting that those same sectors lost 6,400 jobs in June.

Employment in metro Seattle slipped by a seasonally unadjusted 1,900 jobs in July, mainly due to education workers being let go for the summer, according to the department's regional labor economist, Cristina Gonzalez.

Statewide, professional and business services, something of a catchall category for white-collar jobs, added 2,200 jobs in July, with most of the gains coming in managerial, administrative and support jobs.

Construction, which has been one of the mainstays of the state's economy, lost 2,000 jobs last month, due entirely to declines in the heavy and civil-engineering sector.

In King and Snohomish counties, though, 3,000 construction jobs were added in July, and manufacturing added another 1,300 jobs.

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

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