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But, economic doubts linger for many

Jobless rate in state drops to lowest in a year

The Mississippi Employment Security Commission (MESC) publishes monthly information of how the unemployment rate runs on average, and with this September’s drop to the lowest rate of the year, 6.2%, the state is following a natural trend.

But even with such good news about the low unemployment rate, there are still too many problems facing the state, said Curt Thompson, the MESC executive director.

“I think the manufacturing sector is still hit hard and as long as it’s still having problems things aren’t good,” Thompson said.

The two highest months of the year in unemployment levels usually are in January and June. Lower rates can traditionally be seen in August and September. For the most part what is driving the levels up or down is the school season, according to Thompson. In August and September students and teachers are going back to school, while in January students are graduating, and in June students and teachers are out for the summer break. Spikes in the unemployment level would always be seen at these points in the year, Thompson said, and the fact that it’s down now is a good thing. But it’s still too early to tell if the rebound is here to stay.

“It looks like we’re in for a long recovery period,” Thompson said. “It’s not like we’re looking down the road at any bad things happening right now but it’s also like your crystal ball has fog in it so you can’t tell. You see cracks in the system and you kind of worry if it’s starting to recover. But you see a rebound and you think well, here we go.”

It’s been especially hard for Thompson to hang his hat on a rebound considering what’s happening in many rural Delta counties. Many have lost factories that had provided employment to local residents for years.

“Those factories are all over the state of Mississippi and we haven’t found a systematic replacement for them,” Thompson said.

The hardest hit by factories leaving has been Clarke County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state of 17.8%, a point below Webster County whose August unemployment rate was 16.8%.

“We’ve been on the road over to Birmingham and Atlanta and other places visiting companies to try to get them to come here, knocking on doors just like a salesman,” said Paul Mosley, president of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors. “That’s what it’s going to take.”

Clarke County has mainly lost cut-and-sew facilities over the past few years. The most recent closings have been with Burlington Industries, which closed in February, laying off 816, followed by Nazareth/Century Mills, which closed just a few months later and caused more than 900 people to lose their jobs. Such despair in Clarke County, Mosley said, has led him and others in that county to believe the lowest unemployment rate this year has “skipped” Clarke County. But Mosley is optimistic.

“I think for Clarke County through statewide elected officials, our Congressman Chip Pickering and all those who are trying to find us something to come in here it’s just going to be a matter of time before things improve,” Mosley said. “We’re getting a lot of help. All we need are just to get the businesses in here.”

Kay Rolison, president of the Clarke County Chamber of Commerce, believes Clarke County has reached its rock bottom unemployment rate and that things are turning around.

“I think it’s going to be better for Clarke County in the future,” Rolison said. “We’re going at it strong, recruiting and planning for the future. Everyone really has a positive attitude and I think we’ll come out of this. It may not be tomorrow or even next year but eventually it will be better. We just have to look at it that way. Everyone is really working hard in Clarke County and we’re going to pull through it.”

Cautious optimism

Sherry Vance isn’t getting carried away with the low unemployment numbers, however.

“While we’re pleased that the unemployment numbers are much lower, we are also very cautious in our response to these numbers,” said Vance, the communications director for the Mississippi Development Authority. “The Mississippi Development Authority will continue to design and manage programs that will help create new jobs and retain existing jobs. We are working daily through our Workforce Investment Network (WIN) to assist both employees and employers to learn about the many benefits available through our WIN job centers.”

MDA is also helping in other ways by recruiting new companies to the state as well as helping with existing industry programs.

Tom Troxler, executive director of the Rankin First Economic Development Authority, said he hopes the fact that the state has reached the lowest unemployment rate it’s had all year is an indication that things are getting better in Mississippi and in the overall economy. Rankin County reported the lowest unemployment rate in the state, with 3.1%.

Thompson said Mississippi is not alone in its high unemployment rates.

“North Carolina has been severely beaten up on furniture manufacturers moving out,” Thompson said. “They have almost double the unemployment numbers we have in this state.”

Thompson said the numbers are just an indication that better trained workers and more high-tech jobs are needed in Mississippi and in other states with high unemployment levels.

“I think you’ll always have to have a certain manufacturing base and I think you always want to have that in an economy,” Thompson said. “I think that’s why our state continues to push for that base. But certain aspects of it will shift out of the country.” And that, he said, is why Mississippi has to be ready with more workforce training and industry recruitment.

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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