BLS: Weak weekly wages in Washington County hit wall in first quarter, near bottom in U.S.

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 306 views 

The volatile side of Northwest Arkansas dynamic growth reared its ugly head again when new Labor Department data released this week showed workers in the state’s third largest county saw some of the deepest weekly pay cuts in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2018.

Among the nation’s 349 largest counties, Washington County ranked 2nd nationally among the urban areas with the weakest average weekly wage gains for the 12-month period ended in March 2018, according to the latest U.S. county workforce data released on Wednesday (Aug. 22) by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That wage loss, on a weekly basis, means the state’s third most populous county saw a $26.41 decline in the average $852 paycheck of the 107,400 workers in Northwest Arkansas.

Nationwide, Forsyth County in North Carolina, had the largest percentage decrease in average weekly wages at -4.8%, followed by Washington County and McLean County in the Chicago area at – 3.1% and -2.5%, respectively. Newport News City County in Virginia and Lexington County in South Carolina rounded out the bottom five at -2.4% and 2.2%%, respectively.

On the other end of the scale, Peoria County, Ill., had the largest county percentage increase in average weekly wages at a whopping 23.8% which averages to about a $342.72 boost in weekly pay. Within that county, average weekly wages for those in the manufacturing sector rose by $1,802, or nearly 61%. Suffolk County in Massachusetts and Clayton County in Georgia followed with weekly wage growth of 12.1% and 11.3% respectively. King County in Washington State and San Francisco County also saw double digit wage growth on weekly basis.

The new BLS employment and wage summary for the period from March 2017 to March 2018 for Washington County stands in stark contrast to fourth quarter data when the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area ranked 18th in average weekly wage gains for the 12-month period that ended in December 2017.

Since the year-end 2017 numbers were released in late May, BLS officials have revised Washington County’s wage growth to 5.6%, putting the fast-growing region among the top 10 counties with the fastest income gains in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Michael Pakko, economist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), told Talk Business & Politics he could not identify any specific factors that could account for the dramatic “first quarter drop” in Washington County paychecks.

“There appears to be a considerable amount of quarter-to-quarter volatility in the statistics, while an underlying trend of relatively rapid growth continues to prevail,” Pakko said of the region’s strong economic expansion in both Washington and Benton counties.

Despite this up-and-down trend, Pakko guessed two factors are likely involving in the dramatic swings in BLS wage data in Washington County. First, the big change between year-over-year growth in the fourth quarter of 2017 and first quarter of 2018, he said, highlighted by real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) quarter gains of 1.1% and other unusual seasonal factors and occupational growth.

“The underlying details of the data won’t be released until early September, so it’s difficult to investigate this specifically,” said the director for UALR’s Economic Development Institute.

Secondly, Pakko said Washington County also saw robust weekly wage gains of 10.8% in the first quarter 2017, which ranked among the strongest weekly pay hikes in the nation.  That means “the growth rate for the first quarter of 2018, measured from four quarters earlier, is therefore measured from an elevated base,” said Pakko.

Meanwhile, Arkansas’ two other largest urban areas, Pulaski and Benton counties, were ranked in the middle of the pack in the first quarter with year-over-year wage gains of 3.3% and 2.8%, respectively. Pulaski County, which has the state’s largest labor pool, ranked 141st among the 249 U.S. counties with jobholders seeing a $32.24 gain in their weekly $977 paycheck.

Benton, home to Bentonville the world’s largest retail in Walmart Inc., ranked 190th among the nation’s largest counties as the nearly 120,000 workers in the fast-growing Northwest Arkansas region receive a weekly raise of $42.06 in their $1,502 per week pay.

In total employment, Midland, Texas, had the largest percentage increase with in overall countywide job growth at 12.6% over the year, well above the national job growth rate of 1.6%. Within Midland, the largest employment increase occurred in the East Texas region’s oil and gas sector, which gained 5,728 jobs at a clip of 26.5% as crude oil prices have brought oil and gas drillers back to the region’s Permian and Eagle Ford shale plays.

Kanawha, W.V., had the largest over-the-year percentage decrease in employment among the largest counties in the U.S., with a loss of 1.4%. Most of the jobs lost were in state government, which vacated 90 positions.

In Arkansas, Washington County led with 2.9% job growth over the 12-month period, ranking the state’s third largest county 48th among the nation largest urban areas. At the end of March 2018, the Arkansas county that is home to the state’s largest namesake university, added 3,123 new positions to its 107,700 labor pool.

At a 122nd ranked, Benton County saw tepid employment growth of 1.8% at the end of the first quarter, adding some 2156 workers to its 119,800 Walmart-driven workforce. In Pulaski County, the job market grew at a weak rate of 0.2%, ranking the state’s largest county 300th out of the 349 MSAs. Today, the central Arkansas county has nearly 250,000 workers, but was only able to add a negligible 500 jobs over the 12-month period.

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