ST GEORGE – Another year of moderate and sustained economic growth for Washington County was the forecast from the 2015 What’s Up Down South Economic Summit in Washington County Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox shared the state of Utah’s economic climate with the summit while also giving a brief preview of issues facing the Legislature later this month.
Discussing the economic forecast for Washington County was Lecia Langston, regional economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Langston said the county can expect to continue seeing a steady rate of job growth as the market also continues to stabilize.
As unemployment continues to fall in the county and the labor market tightens, pressure to raise new-hire wages may also mount as employers seek quality employees in the coming year.
See videocast at the top of the story, click the play arrow in the center.
Utah’s economic climate, pending legislative matters
Cox spoke at the opening of the summit and shared data on Utah’s economy.
Utah currently has the fourth most diverse economy in the nation, something which helped the state weather the Great Recession, Cox said. It is also one of the fastest growing states in the tech sector, and is experiencing fast growth in the banking and construction industries as well.
Utah’s unemployment rate is currently at 3.6 percent, Cox said, which is below the national average of 5.6 percent.
Personal incomes in Utah grew in 2014 at a rate of 3 percent, he said, putting Utah among the top 10 states for personal income growth.
Cox gave credit for the state’s positive economic outlook to its people, saying it is their work ethic and ability to think outside of the box that, in part, helps draw outside businesses to Utah and also expand business within it.
While much of the state’s economic development happens along the Wasatch Front, Cox said, Southern Utah is not forgotten.
“Washington County is critical to the economy of Utah,” he said.
Thanks to the efforts of Southern Utah legislators, the northern half of the state is consistently reminded there life in Utah does exist south of Utah County, Cox said.
The state’s 2015 legislative session will begin Jan. 26. Cox said some of the primary issues facing the state include matters of the state budget, education, growth, water issues, air quality, and the governor’s Healthy Utah program.
Related to the budget, Cox said, it is very likely money will be set aside for the advancement of Dixie Applied Technology College’s new campus on the Black Hill. The announcement drew applause from the audience.
Washington County’s economic outlook
If you liked the economic data for 2013 and 2014, you’ll like the projected data for 2015, Langston said, as she gave summit attendees what she called an “economic selfie” of the region.
“We’re still seeing nice, moderate growth,” Langston said. “It’s very good, very strong, nice moderate growth. Right where we want it.”
Over 3,000 jobs were created in Washington County between September 2013 and September 2014, Langston said.
“We’re seeing broad-based growth across the industries,” she said.
These increases were largely seen in the fields of construction, retail trade, leisure/hospitality, transportation/warehousing, and government.
Construction alone grew by 12 percent, yet still ranks 40 percent beneath its peak before the Great Recession.
Population growth for Washington County had been at 2 percent and isn’t likely to change according to Langston’s data. She noted building permits for commercial and residential properties were down in 2014, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as it showed the market was stabilizing and not heading into another bubble.
Unemployment in the county is currently at 4 percent. Langston said “full employment” occurs at around the 3-4 percent mark.
When this occurs, she said, it is also a time when new-hire wages tend to go up due to the labor market tightening.
“If you’re trying to hire people, and you can’t find people, then that’s when wages start to get pushed up,” Langston said.
While Washington County hasn’t seen much of a rise in new-hire wages yet, she sais, as the year continues, start expecting it.
“I think that’s the main thing to take out of this: growth is going to continue, but because we’ve absorbed all those unemployed back into the labor market, you’re going to start to see it be a little more difficult to hire and you’re going to have to (raise) your wages to get a better employee,” Langston said. “If you’re an employee, you can expect to demand more for your labor.”
For KCSG and St. George News, Melissa Anderson contributed the videocast attached to this report.
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