LEE COUNTY: Unemployment rate remains high

Sep. 01, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

As Lee County celebrates Labor Day, most people will have Monday off from work. But many also won't work Tuesday, Wednesday or any other day because they're still searching for a job.

The county's unemployment rate rose to 11.5 percent in July — up from 11.2 percent in June — keeping it among the highest in the state and one of just nine counties whose unemployment rate didn't fall or at least stay the same. It is better than the county's 12.3 percent unemployment a year ago, but it's also significantly higher than the state average of 8.9 percent for July, which was the third-highest in the country.

"This just continues to plague us," Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce said. "We have this very stubborn unemployment that just refuses to budge. We're one of nine counties that has an increase? That's just devastating."

He said a high unemployment rate leads to a deadly cycle for individuals and businesses alike: People without jobs don't spend as much money, which hurts local businesses. Once those businesses reach a tipping point, they have to conduct lay offs or even shut down completely. Those newly unemployed people won't spend as much as before, which hurts the businesses they used to go to. And so on.

Joyce said that cycle is what's keeping the country — and especially smaller, more rural areas like Lee County — in the recession. But there's a way out for Lee County, he said, and it all starts with the very thing Labor Day celebrates: the blue collar worker.

More than a third of people employed in Lee County — as of 2011, at least, according to MIT's Community Economic Toolbox — are employed in manufacturing, which is more than double the state average. Joyce said Lee County can pull itself up through that industry, but it won't be easy.

There are open manufacturing jobs which pay decently, he said, but technology has changed the industry so much in recent years that many locals simply aren't qualified to fill those openings in terms of training, knowledge or expertise. He thinks that will change, if people get the chance.

"We've always had a really good work ethic in Lee County, " he said. "It's been a hallmark of our labor force here."

That labor force basically mirrors the county's population, Joyce said, summing it up in one word: diverse.

Of the county's census-estimated 60,000 people in 2012, 58 percent were white, 20 percent were black and 19 percent were Latino, with the rest split between various ethnicities. More than 11 percent were born in another country, and 18.5 percent — nearly one in every five people — speak a language other than English at home. More than 80 percent of adults graduated high school, but fewer than 20 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. About 17 percent of Lee County residents live in poverty, and the annual per capita income was nearly $4,000 less than the state average, at about $21,700.

But Joyce said the main number that matters is the high unemployment rate — which has been in the double digits for nearly five years — because when it goes down, the county's economic future will be looking up. And it starts, he reiterated, with helping manufacturers find the employees they need locally.

"We've got to figure out how we match up people who want to work with the retraining for the jobs that are available," he said.

That's where Central Carolina Community College comes in. President Bud Marchant said one of the college's main objectives is to retrain adults who are out of work or whose skills are becoming obsolete.

"There are manufacturers in particular — but also others — who have jobs but need people with certain skills," Marchant said. "... We're trying to match that. We're trying to get the skills that people have up to where employers need them to be."

That goal, he said, means the college must also be up on the latest trends. For instance, the college is looking into starting a program to teach people how to do maintenance and other technical work on natural gas wells. Marchant said that as long as it looks like the state will allow hydraulic fracturing, the college will be ready to prepare people to work in the industry.

"If it appears that (natural gas drilling) is imminent, we certainly want some of those jobs, or the majority of those jobs, to go to locals," Marchant said, noting that right now, virtually no one in North Carolina has the required training or experience because there hasn't been drilling here in years.

Joyce didn't address fracking specifically, but he said Lee County needs something — anything — that will result in a big boost in hiring.

"There's a lot of interest," he said, of businesses who have considered moving to Lee County. "We're just not landing anybody. And we have to do something about that. ... We've been working quite a while for an industry that would mean hundreds of jobs, and that's what we need. A few jobs here and there isn't going to cut it."