By Leora Watson
The Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce has a long list of things to love about Bellingham. The natural beauty that surrounds the area, the array of unique small businesses, the solid community, easy access to Canada and more.
It is no wonder that students want to stay. The unfortunate truth is that, while many Western students want to stay in Bellingham after they graduate, they simply can’t.
Bellingham’s unemployment rate in November 2019 was 5%, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data. That is higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.6% and higher than Seattle’s rate of 2.9%.
It’s also a small city with a lot of small businesses. The population of Bellingham was 90,665 in 2019, according to World Population Review. Only the top four employers employed more than 1,000 people.
Their best chances to stay and make ends meet might be getting into health care or education: According to a list from Western’s Center for Economic and Business Research, the top employer in 2018 was PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. Western came in third and Bellingham Public Schools fourth.
While an oil refinery and an IT service management company also appear on the list, it is hard to ignore the many predominantly customer service jobs: Companies like Fred Meyer, Costco, T-Mobile, Walmart, Haggen and Target were all top employers for 2018. Bellingham has a highly educated population, with 44.1% of the population having a bachelor's degree or higher in July 2018, according to the United States Census Bureau. For the United States, 31.5% of the population has higher education. With Bellingham having such a highly educated population but many top employers being customer service jobs, it puts it in perspective of what the job market is like.
While the city of Kennewick’s population in 2018 was similar to Bellingham’s, 82,943, the top 13 employers of the city, according to the official website of the city of Kennewick, were well over 1,000 employees, a majority over 2,000. The top employer, Battelle/PNNL, a United States Department of Energy National Laboratory, employs 4,365 people.
Cassidy Newmark has direct experience with the difficulty of finding a job in Bellingham.
Newmark graduated from the University of Texas, with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2012. They originally moved to Bellingham in 2018 for their significant other at the time and ended up working for food service provider Aramark on Western’s campus for nine months as a supervisor.
“The job market was not conducive at all, really, for anyone,” Newmark said. “As someone of my age demographic, late 20s at the time, the only real solid nine-to-five job was what Aramark was offering on campus.”
After quitting their job at Aramark, Newmark hoped to use their degree to find a job that would allow them to do social work. Newmark looked for a new job in Bellingham for four months with no success.
“The job market is very limited there,” Newmark said. “It is a college town and most students are looking to find a job immediately after they graduate.”
JianBo He has experienced other difficulties. “Not many jobs work around your schedule. You can't do many jobs because you have school and classes,” he said.
He has been at Western for five years and is majoring in mental health counseling. He is in his first year of graduate school and has worked many jobs in Bellingham, including at the Ferndale Boys & Girls Club and as a basketball referee. He currently works at the information desk in the Viking Union on Western’s campus.
“Either it pays well, but the hours suck, or it doesn't pay anything but it works with your school schedule. It’s a trade-off between flexibility or taking out some loans for school,” he said.
He also isn't unaware of the difficulty of finding employment in Bellingham, especially for recent graduates. “I knew someone who graduated with a communication science[s and disorders] degree and couldn’t find a job here, because all the big companies are in Seattle.”
Colin Hill is certain he won’t be able to stay in Bellingham once he graduates. “I've been looking on job sites and there are maybe two or three positons with my degree that I could apply to here.”
Hill is a senior and expects to graduate next quarter with a degree in political science. He currently works at the Western Associated Students Bookstore and has been working there for about a year. He was looking for a job for a few months before the bookstore hired him.
“It would be nice to stay up here, but I have no expectations that I will be able to,” Hill said.