Like state, Lee's jobless rate on decline

County's figure still high compared to neighbors
May. 29, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The N.C. Department of Commerce's most recent unemployment figures point in mostly one direction: down — a trend that included Lee County. Figures for 99 of the state's 100 counties, announced Wednesday, dropped from March's numbers.

Overall unemployment in North Carolina is at 6 percent, down nearly 2 percent from the same time last year. Lee County's unemployment rate sits at 8 percent, a drop from 8.3 percent last month and 10.3 percent in April 2013.

However, Lee County is still on the higher end of counties in the state when it comes to joblessness. Of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Lee ranks 86th in unemployment.

“This is good news, of course, that our rate has dropped another three-tenths of a point and we've dropped a little over two points in a year,” said Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, “but here's the bad news. In March, we were 77th out of 100 counties, and today, we're 86th. We have been reducing the number of unemployed people in Lee County, but other counties are employing people at a faster rate.”

Crystal Morphis, interim director of Lee County Economic Development Corporation, said that it's difficult to “read a lot” into the monthly numbers, but she is encouraged by the results.

“Obviously, those numbers are going in the right direction,” she said. “Generally speaking, the overall economy has been improving across the state, and I think we'll continue to see that.”

Even with the overall drop, Lee stands in a bit of a contrast to surrounding counties. Chatham County has an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, third best in North Carolina. Moore County is 22nd at 5.7 percent, while Harnett County's 6.9 percent is 62nd in the state.

Both Joyce and Morphis expressed concern about Lee County's place in comparison with other counties. Lee shares the bottom 15 of the rankings with “poorer counties,” Joyce said, such as Scotland, Richmond and Halifax, something he sees as a problem, particularly given the number of people in the workforce. According to the Department of Commerce, the workforce in Lee County has dropped from 26,799 in 2012 to 25,261 in April 2014.

“We've actually had a phenomenon where our workforce is shrinking,” Joyce said. “I think what we're seeing is certainly baby boomers retiring. But I think we're seeing some people who do not have skills in this modern advanced manufacturing environment who have dropped out of the workforce.”

Joyce said he thinks the lack of employment comes from a shortage of construction, business and professional service jobs. He added that manufacturing was the probable boost behind the overall decrease in unemployment, pointing to Caterpillar's recent employment of 1,200 people as a prime example.

“I think that's been one of the bright spots here, and I think that accounts for our drop,” he said. “We are lucky to have this great manufacturing base that we've had in Lee County for 50 or 60 years.”

The first step, Joyce said, to improve those numbers is for the county to approve a $150,000 investment incentive for GKN Driveline, an auto parts manufacturer, and its proposed move back to Lee County with a service center. Voting on the incentive is set to happen during the county commissioners' meeting June 2.

“We need to approve that [incentive],” Joyce said. “It's 105 jobs at the best wages out there [in that field]. That's the kind of thing we can do. We need to get out and get more manufacturing in here. That's where our employment base is.”

Only three counties in North Carolina had unemployment rates above 10 percent, while 11 counties were under 5 percent. Scotland County had the highest rate at 11.6 percent, while Orange County rated the lowest at 4.0.

The numbers for May will be released June 20.


Unemployment data for area counties

County       April unemployment rate    ranking

    Lee                8 percent                                 86

Chatham      4.2 percent                                3

Harnett        6.9 percent                                62

Moore         5.7 percent                                22