Single-family homebuilding, a mainstay of Clark County’s economy, is turning in another strong year with construction activity steady and industry job growth outpacing the rest of the labor market.
This year, local construction industry employers have added an estimated 1,200 new workers for an annual growth rate of 9.6 percent.
Construction, however, is not the only sector adding jobs at a torrid pace this year.
According to the Washington Employment Security Department, retail trade businesses – from auto dealers to grocery stores – also have been hiring. Despite inroads from online competitors, retailers in Clark County have added 1,000 new jobs in the 12 months through September.
Leisure and hospitality businesses brought on 1,400 new jobs and government agencies, including school districts, have created 2,100 new jobs.
Total county employment (not counting people who live here but work elsewhere) has reached an estimated 165,200. That’s up 8,200 new jobs from a year ago.
According to a preliminary report from state labor analyst, Scott Bailey, the county’s unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in October, the sixth month in a row that unemployment was below 5 percent.
“Generally, Clark County’s labor market is pretty close to red hot,” Bailey said.
Overall year-over-year job growth in the county, he said, is running at 4.7 percent.
Employers here are adding jobs at a faster pace than in the Portland-Vancouver metro (up a comparable 2.4 percent) or statewide in Washington (up 2.3 percent) or nationally (up 1.2 percent).
“There is nothing on the horizon going into 2018 that says anything will change,” Bailey said. “Nationally, we’re seeing patient (economic) growth and a slowly improving labor market. It looks like another good year.”
However, while construction, retailing and hospitality appear to be on the upswing in Clark County, the local manufacturing sector remains stuck in neutral with few job gains (plus 400, year-over-year) through October. The recent news that Georgia-Pacific will cut as many as 300 jobs at its Camas paper mill next spring will likely contribute to continuing weakness in the sector, Bailey said.
Retail sales up 8.8 percent
Increased consumer spending has bolstered the strong local economy. In Clark County, store-only taxable retail sales jumped 8.8 percent in the second quarter of this year over 2016, according to the most recent report from the Washington State Department of Revenue.
Sales here in the second quarter totaled $786 million with auto dealers raking in $137.5 million in new and used vehicle sales during the quarter; retail building material stores, $116.8 million; and general merchandise retailers, $167.3 million. All categories showed strong increases from 2016.
Taxable retail construction spending totaled $381.8 million, up $62 million from second quarter 2016.
Aaron Marvin, president of the 630-member Building Industry Association of Southwest Washington, said his members expect continued expansion.
“We have definitely had a solid year in 2017 and expect positive gains in 2018,” Marvin said. “The industry, going forward, does face some complex issues regarding land availability, labor shortages and development lending constrictions. But generally, the outlook is positive.”
Home sales steady
Meanwhile, Clark County home sales, as reported by the Realtor Multiple Listing Service, have been even or slightly below a year ago despite strong demand for housing. Closed home sales of 6,576 through September were down slightly (0.5 percent) from last year with new listings of homes for sale down 3.2 percent.
The median home sale price in Clark County, according to the Realtors’ report, was $325,000, up from $289,900 in 2016.
Both Realtors and homebuilders are hoping that new construction in the pipeline for both single-family and multi-family housing will ease the imbalance between strong demand and limited supply that has pushed Clark County home sale prices and apartment rents higher this year.
In the nine months through September, the Clark County Community Development Department issued 1,228 permits for single-family home construction projects, compared with 1,121 a year ago.
In the three months from July through September, developers applied to create 549 new single-family home lots in the county. That compares with just 64 lot applications in the same quarter last year.
Year-to-date through September, builders have applied to construct $553 million worth of commercial and residential construction in Clark County.
Jamie Howsley, BIA government affairs director, said buildable land supply in relationship to county population growth is emerging as a pressing issue for the association.
“In the last planning round, the state Office of Financial Management used a (local) population growth rate of 1 percent to establish needed housing land supply,” he said. “The rate is not jibbing with historical averages or with what we are seeing.”
Meanwhile, the Clark County construction industry has added about 3,000 new jobs in the past three years to bring total sector employment to 13,800 as demand for housing continues to outstrip supply.
Clark County 2017 Employment
Sector New jobs*
Construction 13,800, up 1,200
Retail trade 19,000, up 1,000
Leisure/hospitality 17,400, up 1,400
Government (schools) 25,900, up 2,100
Total in-county 165,200, up 8,200*New jobs in 12 months through September. SOURCE: Washington Employment Security Department.