The Seattle Picture

Even when Seattle’s biggest employer takes a hit, the local economy barely feels it — thanks to Microsoft and its progeny.

The software industry is not the biggest employer in this hub on Puget Sound, but it’s the engine that keeps the economy humming, even when Boeing takes a dip.

The aerospace company — Seattle’s largest employer — has clipped its work force by the thousands in recent years because of the Asian financial crisis, among other things. But Microsoft and myriad companies spawned by its presence have kept tech job newspaper advertisements bountiful and low unemployment levels steady. State employment security officials reported a 4.6 percent seasonally adjusted jobless rate in April 2000.

There cannot be enough said about the role of software development. Hundreds of companies engaged in such areas as software development and e-commerce keep unemployment lines short. Experts say increases in computer and data processing, research and testing services have offset aircraft job losses, keeping the lattes flowing at Starbucks. Biotechnology, medical device and research, and testing companies have helped cultivate a diversified local economy that keeps the region strong, despite setbacks.

Experts are a little jittery about the potential fallout from the Microsoft antitrust case. Unlike Boeing, they suspect negative ramifications could plug the creation of spin-off companies and slow down the cash registers at Nordstrom. Total high-tech employment in the Seattle area reached 109,500 in 1999 — a nearly 50 percent increase from 1995, based on figures reported in the Seattle Times in April 2000.

High-tech workers tend to flock to Microsoft territory. Seattle and its home base, King County, account for more than two-thirds of the state’s high-tech work force. And the software industry is steadily gaining on the aerospace industry, the biggest player in town. In March 2000, the Washington Technology Council noted that the aircraft industry represents a smaller share of total high-tech employment — 39 percent from 59 percent — while the software industry encompasses 23 percent. Now, consider payroll figures compiled by public agencies. The 1998 payroll for the region’s 110,000 aircraft workers was $5.98 billion. The software industry, employing about one-fifth of the number of aircraft workers, consumed a $6.77 billion payroll.

Indeed, techies have plenty of options. Network engineers, development engineers, software developers, IT architecture engineers, C++ developers and more are all in demand. They can join the sandals and sweatpants crowd on the Eastside, or the Brooks Brothers/Donna Karan types dominating Rainier Tower downtown. Whether in wingtips or Birkenstocks, they’re in an enviable position, fetching an average annual salary (including stock options) of $282,540 in 1998 — a 43 percent increase from the 1997 average of $197,878. The American Electronics Association translated that amount to more down-to-earth terms, putting the average high-tech wage at $81,000 a year in 1997. The high figures reflect the Microsoft skew factor.

Beyond freight carriers and software, the Seattle region is growing tentacles in non-tech areas, like hospitality. Then, there are long-time players in the local economy, like the forestry industry. The top public employers reflect the region’s diversity.

Employer – 1997 Revenues – Type of Business

Boeing – $ 45.8B – Aerospace Manufacturer
Costco – $ 21.8B – Membership Warehouses
Microsoft – $ 11.3B – Software Developer
Weyerhaeuser – $ 11.2B – Pulp/Paper Products
Washington Mutual – $ 7.5B – Bank
Paccar – $ 6.7B – Heavy-duty Truck Manufacturer
Nordstrom – $ 4.8B – Apparel Retailer
Safeco – $ 4.7B – Insurance/Financial Services
Airborne Freight – $ 2.9B – Express Delivery
Quality Food Centers – $ 1.8B – Retail Grocery Chain

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