County’s jobless rate drops to 3.7%

By ED HOWELL Daily Mountain Eagle In a major economic turn signaling the recession may be ending for the area, Walker County’s unemployment rate has dropped 1.1 percent in one month to stand at 3.7 percent, a fraction below the lowest seasonally adjusted state rate in Alabama history. The local rate was still higher than the other counties immediately surrounding Walker. However, the improvements for the county, area and state were dramatic. Retail and industrial gains, particularly at the Yorozu plant, were credited by the county’s top job recruiter for the local job growth. “All 67 counties experienced drops in their unemployment rates, both over the year and over the month, and for the first time in a decade, no county has a rate in the double digits,” said Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington last week as the latest numbers were announced. Gov. Kay Ivey said Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted jobless rate for September was 3.8 percent. The state rate dropped from 4.2 percent in August, while the county rate dropped from 4.8 percent that month. The Walker County rate was 8 percent in September 2016, while the state at that time stood at 6 percent. Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Labor, noted county figures being released are not seasonally adjusted, while state figures are. The unadjusted state rate was 3.3 percent in September, falling from 4.3 percent in August and 6.2 percent a year before. Officials said in a release that the adjusted state rate tied the lowest rate in the state’s history, when it was 3.8 percent in April 2007. The national seasonally adjusted rate in September was 4.2 percent, down from 4.4 percent the month before. It stood at 4.9 percent in September 2016. A total of 24,226 workers out of Walker County’s civilian labor force of 25,169 were listed as working in September, leaving 943 estimated to be without work in the county. The number of unemployed decreased from 1,221 the month before and 2,049 from the year before. The labor force overall of 25,169 decreased slightly in September from 25,260 in August and from 25,761 in September 2016. The number of those working was up from 24,039 in August and 23,712 in September last year. David Knight, the executive director of the Walker County Economic Development Authority and the leading industrial recruitment official for the county, said a 1 percent change amounts to about 300 people. Winston had a jobless rate of 3.9 percent in September, down from 5.1 percent in August. The Winston County rate for September 2016 was 7.5 percent. Unemployment rates in September for other surrounding counties included Blount, 3 percent; Cullman, 2.8 percent; Fayette, 3.6 percent; Jefferson, 3.2 percent; Marion, 3.6 percent; and Tuscaloosa, 3 percent. "We’ve been working extremely hard over the past six months to bring Alabama’s unemployment rate down, and today’s news shows that our efforts are paying off,” Ivey said in a statement. "This is truly an historic day, as we announce that Alabama’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has ever been. When it comes to job creation, we are doing the right thing and momentum is on our side in Alabama. But, we won't let up and we will continue recruiting new businesses and encouraging existing firms to expand. We can’t and won’t slow down just because we’ve reached this milestone.” “Nearly 23,000 more people are working now than last year and the number of unemployed is down by almost 50,000. Those numbers represent real workers, with real families, and indicate real progress in our economy,” Washington said. “Alabama’s employers continue to add jobs, supporting more than 2,011,000 positions this month, beating yearly job growth projections by 28,400 only nine months into the year. We remain hopeful that this wonderful progress continues throughout the rest of the year.” Statewide, 2,068,594 people were counted as employed in September, compared to 2,057,360 in August, and 2,045,762 in September 2016. September’s rate represents 82,678 unemployed persons, compared to 90,756 in August and 131,201 in September 2016. Counties with the lowest unemployment rates are: Shelby County at 2.4 percent, Marshall and Cullman Counties at 2.8 percent, and Madison, Lee, and Elmore Counties at 2.9 percent. Counties with the highest unemployment rates are: Wilcox County at 8.9 percent, Clarke County at 6.7 percent, and Dallas County at 6.3 percent. Knight said some of the decreases in the county can be attributed to steady hiring at the Yorozu plant in Jasper.

“They are now up to about 140 people at the Yorozu plant. They are steadily hiring and it varies month to month, but they now have right at about 140. They will be up to 150 by the end of the calendar year. Of course, they are going to 300,” he said. He also said that many companies say when the unemployment rate drops to 3.2 or 3.5 percent, that is a labor pool that could be tough at that point. “It’s great we’re there but it also makes it a little more difficult to sell the availability of labor for an area. One of the things we’ve always been able to count on is the fact we have so many out of our work force who commute out of Walker County on a daily basis,” Knight said. “So if there are quality jobs here at home, it is a lot easier to find those people. “I think what you are seeing is that all of our automotive suppliers have slowly added small numbers of people, so they are all doing quite well right now. I think Yorozu has ramped up pretty quickly,” he said. Knight said Aldi and Harbor Freight, among other local stores, reflect a healthy trend in local retail. He pointed out the new Milo’s that just opened in Jasper even hired 50 people, 30 full-time and 20 part-time, which could reflect almost a quarter of a percent point in the unemployment rate. As for the struggling Jasper Mall, which is set to be auctioned off Thursday at the front of the Walker County Courthouse — although it is uncertain any takers will show up — he said its performance reflects a national trend for malls. He said JCPenney and K-mart, both of which pulled out of the mall as anchor stores, had not performed well on a national basis. Overall, “I think (the improvement) is a combination of the new retail establishments, the automotive sector doing really well and Yorozu getting ramped up,” he said. Local officials have also been continuing recruiting efforts. He said he and Jasper Mayor David O’Mary just returned Tuesday from a trip where they attended a meeting involving the U.S. Japan Association, seven Southeastern states and the nation of Japan. At the conference, which started Sunday, key business leaders from Japan and officials from the U.S. gather, alternating between Japan and the U.S. for location. This year it was in the U.S. “It was a great opportunity,” he said. “We had multiple meals sitting across the table from executives from Mitsubishi” and almost all other major Japanese companies. He also noted the national economy seems “more optimistic,” he said. Hutchison said Tuesday that other counties are seeing large drops, pointing out the number of unemployed in Tuscaloosa County dropped in one month by about 1,000 people in September. “We’re seeing it across the Southeast, to be honest,” she said, as well as the state. Raw numbers for the states are holding steady improvement. She also pointed out that as confidence in the job market grows, people who have dropped out of the job market will come back in time. She also noted different trends than what officials have seen in the past, which have altered numbers. Those age 17-24 are not coming into the labor market as early as they once did, “which tells us they are staying in school.” Also, baby boomers, who should be moving out of the market, are “bouncing in and out.”  Also, the state’s pace of recovery is another factor. “What I’ve said for years is that Alabama was one of the last states to be fully impacted by the recession,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone always says the Great Recession started in 2007. Well, it did for most everybody. It didn’t really hit Alabama until the end of ‘08 and the beginning of ‘09.”  In other words, the state was still doing well when everyone else was starting to hurt from the recession, as manufacturing plants kept the state afloat longer. The recession did hit, but she said officials have maintained for years, “We were late getting in and we’re going to be late getting out.”  While the state was later starting to see a recovery, “all of our indicators are back to pre-recession levels, back to those 2007, early 2008 levels, which were good terms for us.”  She said getting to 3 percent levels does mean the state is almost at full employment practically. For that reason, the state is starting to push apprenticeship programs at state career centers for potential workers and employers. That allows people to work at a business to learn high tech skilled jobs, while still making a paycheck. Employers are offered wage assistance to help with those programs, cutting costs. Walker County is a part of the Birmingham-Hoover metro area, she noted. Over the past year, the metro area has gained 3,100 jobs, with the biggest gains being in healthcare and social assistance jobs, up by 2,300 jobs. Construction is up 1,200 on construction jobs over the year, which she said is a very positive signal. State government went up by 1,000 jobs over that time in the metro area, while 900 were added in scientific and technical services.