In most places, people find a job, decide on how far they’re willing to commute, and then find a place to live. Flip that around for many people on Whidbey Island. They decide to live here, and then try to find a job that lets them do that. If that doesn’t skew the data enough, then consider that the county’s largest employer is the U.S. Navy, which definitely has a different dynamic for its “employees.” Add in the size of the retirement community, and normal economic measures aren’t measuring a place that’s normal.
The Navy may be the biggest employer on the island, but almost all of that activity is in and around Oak Harbor. Those roughly 10,000 people are supported by thousands more directly and indirectly. Someone has to sell them food, fix their cars, and teach their kids.
Look around the rest of the county (including Camano and Hat Islands), and find another 4,600 jobs in government service. There’s a lot of land and residents to manage.
Outside government, there are over 14,300 service jobs. The healthiest recent job growth is in health, education, leisure, and hospitality; as well as professional and business services. Tourism happens and Whidbey’s reputation continues to grow. Transportation and retail were hit by the Great Recession, which was hopefully temporary.
Making stuff, like in construction and manufacturing, only accounts for about 1,600 jobs. That’s surprising considering the need for more housing and the increasing ability to manufacture and ship things from almost anywhere on the planet.
One of the more significant numbers may be harder to find. For many, Whidbey, particularly south Whidbey, is a bedroom community. One study (reference TBD) estimates that at least 60% of the island’s south-end residents with full-time jobs regularly commute to the mainland. They get to share the iconic experience of two ferry rides a day, a boat ride across the moat of the Sound that’s populated with whales. A variety of buses and carpools carry them throughout the region. Trains meet the ferries for more. Others bicycle up the hills on either shore. The ones with the most patience are the ones who wait in line to drive across.
Add those jobs together and find what’s keeping about half the population busy. The other half are too young (kids), retired, or unemployed.
It can be hard to decide to leave the island when a job disappears, but many hold on because they have a tough time imagining living anywhere else. The island economy tends to lag the rest of the state and nation, which means unemployment is a bit higher here, about 6%.
The good news is that there may be large untapped potential here. The ease of shipping is encouraging small businesses, as is the introduction of gig-speed internet services. Remote workers may not have to commute off-island as much as before. Even a small percentage of them working from the island can improve the local economy as they spend less on commuting, spend more money on local shops and restaurants, and more time in the community. (Hence the welcome arrival of WIcoworks, a coworks in Clinton, just up from the ferry terminal.)
Working on Whidbey can be like working anywhere else, but don’t be surprised if your situation invites creativity, unconventional thinking, and an entrepreneurial spirit.