Local jobless rates hit lowest levels since downturn

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

BarCo, LawCo fall to low 4 percent range by September

Unemployment figures released by the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) this week showed Missouri jobless rates in October had fallen to 5 percent, the lowest rate since April 2007.

Locally, employment levels showed even better numbers, totals not seen since prior to the economic downturn in 2008.

DED numbers for September, the last totals with county breakdowns, showed Barry County with an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent, and Lawrence County had a rate of 4.3 percent.

Barry County's rate in April was 5.5 percent, the same as a year earlier. But in the intervening 12 months, it rose as high as 6 percent. Since April, numbers again rose to 5.8 percent in July and August, then dropped sharply.

Lawrence County followed a near identical pattern, starting April at 5.5 percent, swelling to 6 percent in July, then dropping sharply. Unemployment numbers for 2015 ran consistently 0.6 percent better than the previous year.

The number of people in the workforce has also fluctuated. In Barry County, workers increased from 14,869 in April to 15,167 in June, then dropped. The September tally of 14,825, with the lowest unemployment rate, also reflects the lowest number of workers in six months.

Lawrence County had 20 percent more workers than Barry County in April. The total of 17,706 rose to 18,149 by June, dropped by 336 in July, dropped nearly 300 more in August, then shot up by more than 400 in September. The 17,947 workers counted in September was the second-highest of the year, with the lowest unemployment rate at 4.3 percent.

September numbers show a similar pattern around southwest Missouri. Newton County, with a workforce of around 4,000 people, showed rates dropping for three consecutive months to 3.9 percent in September. McDonald County, considered part of the Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers metropolitan area, with a workforce of around 10,500 people, has seen jobless rates fall from 6 percent in July to 4 percent in September.

Stone County, historically having the highest area jobless figures, tallied as part of the Branson micropolitan area, has seen jobless rates fall steadily from 6.6 percent in July to 5.6 percent in September. Dade County, with the smallest area workforce of around 3,400, saw joblessness fall from 6.5 percent in July to 4.7 percent in September.

Christian County, with a workforce of approximately 42,500, has historically had the lowest jobless rate in southwest Missouri. Its numbers dropped from 4.9 percent in July to 3.8 percent in September. Joplin and Greene County both recorded 3.9 percent tallies in September, down at least 0.6 percent from August.

"Unemployment is lower than it's been in years past," said Jeff Meredith, executive director for the Monett Chamber of Commerce. "You can see that even locally. EFCO has a job fair next week. WinTech had a mini career fair earlier in the year. Tyson Foods and Jack Henry and Associates are always hiring. Many of the industries work through Penmac to hire out a reliable workforce.

"In my four years here, I've seen expansions at EFCO, Monett Metals and 3D Corporate Solutions. It's not a huge explosion. When you add five here, 10 here and 20 there, it adds up."

The biggest shift in Monett jobs occurred after the downturn, when Jack Henry opened offices in Springfield and moved 700 jobs, most of which were held by people who were driving to Monett. Comparing employment totals in directories published by the Chamber in 2012 and 2015, work levels at EFCO, PlayPower and Schreiber Foods has stayed the same. While Hydro Aluminum, now SAPA, eliminated one of its divisions and dropped 150 jobs, Architectural Systems has gone from 90 to 230, some of which work in Aurora. Jack Henry has added 50 jobs, 30 at Monett Metals, and a handful at International Dehydrated Foods.

Local jobless numbers have returned to pre-downturn levels, but the workforce totals today are lower by approximately 3,500 people, 1,500 in each county.

In comparing just September numbers, Barry County saw its lowest total in the last 10 years at 3.6 percent in September 2006 with a workforce of 17,696. As the downturn settled in between 2008 and 2009, the jobless total jumped from 5.3 percent to 8.1 percent. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of people working in Barry County fell by 1,548 and would lose another 28 in the next two years. The 2015 September total is the highest in four years.

Lawrence County saw less fluctuation. Its 10-year September low in 2006 of 3.8 percent reflected a workforce of 19,369, a number that would increase over the next two years. Between 2008 and 2009, unemployment shot from 4.9 percent to 8.2 percent, and the workforce dropped by 2,105 to 17,313. The total grew and fell by around 200 over the next four years. The current total is the highest since 2008 with the lowest unemployment rate.

Meredith wondered if DED could track whether those who left the bi-county workforce moved out of the area or a significant number aged out of the system.

"All in all, the business climate is good here," Meredith said. "Our companies make sound business decisions. They don't hire people just to lay them off. When they do things, they do things right. We have a lot of well-run businesses. Many were started by families doing one thing, and they stayed with it."

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