Some good news for a change, at least nationally, as the unemployment rate dipped to 8.5 percent last week while the U.S. economy added 200,000 jobs. The statistics produced by the U.S. Department of Labor on Jan. 6 show a slowly improving economy, and marks the sixth consecutive month the U.S. has posted a net gain of at least 100,000 jobs. The national unemployment rate is at it lowest point since February of 2009.
Meanwhile, Macon County’s reported unemployment numbers for the month of November were not as positive, and that holds true for most of Western North Carolina (WNC). In November, 1,624 Maconians were listed as unemployed, out of a labor force of about 15,737 citizens, according to the N.C. Employment Security Commission. In October of last year the county’s unemployment rate was 9.7 percent.
Although it is not yet known how WNC’s job market measured during the month of December relative to other counties in the state, November’s numbers do conjure pessimism, especially considering the recent good news at the national level. Despite North Carolina’s unemployment dip from 10.4 percent in October to 10 percent in November, WNC is still lagging behind.
All eight counties west of Asheville saw an increase in their unemployment rates in November, but Ann Howell, an employee with the Jackson County Employment Security Commission, attributes the rise to a stagnant construction industry and the lack of data from the month of December. “I think we will see a drop in the unemployment rate when we get our numbers for December,” said Howell. “We have seen an uptick in some of our job orders and I think that will show once we get next month’s data. But it’s always so hard to predict. We would like to see our construction industry do more than what it’s doing, but if you compare our unemployment rate with what it was at this time last year I think it shows a little improvement,” she said.
Unemployment statistics at the county level are released one month after the national job numbers are reported. Jackson County’s unemployment rate decreased slightly from November 2010, going from 8.3 percent to 8.2 percent in one year. Jackson County has the lowest unemployment rate of all the westernmost counties in WNC. “I think the university and Southwestern Community College helps them out a lot,” said Dale West, Manager of Macon County’s Employment Security Commission/JobLink Center. “They also have a large hospital, so they have some fairly large employers that really benefits their county,” she said.
West remains cautiously optimistic looking ahead, but like Howell, she admits that it is hard to predict where the rates will be for December. “It’s always hard to tell, but one thing I will say is that I think the negative shift comes from the seasonal adjustments,” said West. “A large portion of our economy fluctuates back and forth depending on the time of year, so I think the recent drop-off is a result of that,” she said. Currently, Franklin’s ESC office has 15 job orders.
If you compare Macon and Jackson’s jobless rate with that of Graham County, you begin to see just how severe the job crisis is in some parts of WNC. Graham County’s unemployment rate is very high relative to their regional counterparts, standing at 15 percent. However, as Howell emphasized with Jackson County, you begin to see improvement when you compare November’s numbers from a year ago. In November of 2010, Graham County’s unemployment rate was a debilitating 19.3 percent. When a 15 percent unemployment rate is improvement, we can safely say that we still have a long way to go in WNC.
Nevertheless, the construction industry is showing signs of coming back from the abyss, but there are a lot of factors affecting an industry that Macon County and WNC relied upon so heavily for over a decade. “We’re staying busy with some work at commercial sites,” said Macon Commissioner and construction owner, Ronnie Beale. “Things usually slow down in the winter and there are still so many existing homes on the market,” he said. Those two factors may limit what type of work opens up for construction workers in the future.
One statistic that reveals the importance of the housing industry to Macon County and the surrounding area is illustrated by the percentage of homeowners within each county. For example, according to U.S. Census figures from 2010, compared to the state’s homeownership rate of 68 percent, the number of people who own their homes in Macon County is about 78 percent. In Jackson County, it is about 65 percent. So when the housing industry regresses, as it has in Macon County and America, so do construction jobs.
Tina Wiggins, office manager in Macon County’s Department of Planning, Permitting, and Development, was able to release some data that reveals how Macon County’s construction industry is doing of late. From October-December in 2011, 14 new residential homes were recorded by their department, amounting to an estimated $8,164,213 for the builders. Also, their department listed 35 commercial alterations and additions during those three months, coming in at about $4,863,081 for the construction industry. Wiggins’ team listed two modular homes going up during those three months as well, at an estimated costs of $324,000. In December of 2010 only one new residential permit was issued by the department.
The number of alterations and additions to residential homes during the same three month timeframe was 66, putting an estimated $3,637,209 back into the economy. From the data it is clear that while local consumers may be putting off buying a new home, existing homeowners are expanding and updating their units. This could be a trend that transforms into a “new reality,” as Commissioner Kevin Corbin stated during the board’s debate on the property revaluation back in October.
In spite of the setback in recent months, local organizations are still trying to jumpstart their local economies. For example, one important asset that enhances the workforce of counties is the community colleges that serve them. Recently, Southwestern Community College (SCC) has publicized some initiatives they are working on that are aimed at spurring entrepreneurship and job creation in their respective communities.
Officials with SCC partnered with JobLink Career Center in Macon County in order to provide a “one-stopshop” for people who are looking for a job and want to build their skills. The two organizations will provide classes, personnel, services, and other resources to support job seekers. “It’s a different workplace out there now,” said Dale West, manager of Macon County’s JobLink center. “To survive, we know that retraining is necessary. That’s why SCC’s partnership is so important,” stated West in a SCC press release.
Another initiative geared towards encouraging small business growth is SCC’s collaboration with the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. Their efforts to provide residents in Macon, Jackson, and Swain counties with loans of up to $25,000 for the startup or expansion of rural businesses should be beneficial to anyone willing to take a risk in this economy.
The N.C. Microenterprise Loan Program offers loans from $500 to $25,000, with terms of one to five years, and a interest rate at prime plus four percent, according to an SCC report. The loan program is targeted at individuals who have business ideas, but are not qualified for traditional bank loans. The program is very similar to Jackson County’s Revolving Loan Program, which also seeks to attract business people who cannot get a loan by traditional means. Since 1989, the rural center loan program has given out more than 1,400 loans totaling nearly $8 million, according to an SCC press release.