Long known for its resiliency in the face of national economic downturns, Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. region have weathered the COVID-19 crisis better than many other large metropolitan areas in the United States.
The unemployment rate in Northern Virginia and the Washington area hit 9.9 percent in April 2020, a rate that would have been unimaginable before March but much lower than the rates posted in other metro areas such as New York (15.2 percent), Atlanta (12.7 percent) and Los Angeles (18.8 percent), according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.
The unemployment rate in April was 10.2 percent in Fairfax County, 10.8 percent in Virginia and 14.7 percent nationally. Like other areas, the hardest-hit industry sectors in Northern Virginia were restaurants, retail, hospitality, transportation, entertainment and personal-care services that require close contact.
Areas with a higher percentage of jobs in hard-hit sectors registered the highest unemployment rates, such as Las Vegas (33.5 percent) and Honolulu (20 percent).
Prior to COVID-19, the March unemployment rate in Northern Virginia was 2.6 percent, according to the BLS.
Northern Virginia and the entire Washington area are considered more “recession-resistant” than many other regions because of the mix of jobs here, especially professional and technical services jobs, and the strong government contracting sector that utilizes a tech-savvy workforce, notes Victor Hoskins, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
“The government contracting sector grew in the 1980s and is a bedrock of the economy here, but efforts to diversify the economic base led to the influx of Internet companies, Fortune 500 companies and now tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook provide Northern Virginia an added level of economic stability and resilience,” Hoskins said.
The Northern Virginia region also fared well during the 2008-10 recession compared to other regions because of the strong presence of defense contractors and IT companies, said Alex Cooley, administrator for economic development at Northern Virginia Community College. During the recession the unemployment rate in Northern Virginia peaked at 5.6 percent compared to the national unemployment rate peak of 10 percent.
Cooley noted the linkage between a highly skilled, educated workforce and the ability to attract and retain the employers that are better able to withstand economic headwinds.
“More jobs in Northern Virginia, at least when you compare it to other regions, require more education and more experience. There are many skilled workers here and those are generally the jobs that are more recession-proof than some others,” Cooley said. “We’re kind of shielded from a lot of the turmoil in the national economy because of the majority of jobs that we have here.”
Not surprisingly, job postings in Northern Virginia in May dropped as more companies held off hiring when the pandemic struck. But that trend has begun to turn, Cooley noted.
“We’re now seeing an increase in the number of job postings online that employers are advertising for, so people are looking for talent,” Cooley said. “We’re not back to the levels we were like in February, but we’re doing better than we were in April and May.”
That should be reassuring to those who lost their jobs in the spring, and Hoskins noted the unprecedented efforts that have been made to help employers weather the economic crisis. They include federal legislation such as the Paycheck Protection Program and local initiatives such as the Fairfax RISE grant program for which applications are being accepted through Monday, June 15.
He added that the FCEDA launched www.workinnorthernvirginia.com, a website that features companies doing “surge hiring” during the pandemic.
“This area is blessed with a lot of economic strengths, but we know there is a lot of pain out there,” Hoskins said. “We know that every job we save is a household saved, not a statistic.”