EDITORIAL: Lee County unemployment: the good and bad news

Dec. 13, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

After recording double-digit unemployment in 2013 through the month of August, it was certainly welcome news to hear that Lee County’s September and October numbers had fallen to 9.5 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively.

But Lee County’s employment picture is still far, far from rosy. Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, our October unemployment figure ranks us as the one with the 87th highest jobless rate in the state.

Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce responded to the numbers by saying, “I think the trend is excellent. ... The not-so-great news, or the cloud of the silver lining, is that everybody else is lower than we are.”

That’s a particularly painful element. Looking around at our neighbors, you’ll see far better figures for October. Chatham County’s unemployment rate was at a mere 4.7 percent. Moore County was at 7.1 percent, while Harnett County was at 8.6 percent. These numbers compared to a state average of 7.5 percent in October.

So instead of a favorable comparison, Lee County’s numbers put us in a grouping with counties historically on the low end of the employment rate scale, rather than “up there” with our better-faring neighbors. As a county with a heavier-than-average number of jobs in the manufacturing sector, which Lee is, that’s to be anticipated. There have been times in the past where our labor force has had more stability than much of Central Carolina, but for a few years now, that’s not been the case.

There’s no crystal ball to indicate when we could expect our unemployment rate to be below (or even near) the state average, but there are prospects for improvement. The proposed Partnership for Prosperity entity, which would feature a merger of the Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation, could ultimately prove to be a way of helping to brighten the local unemployment situation, but the real impact could be a year or more away.

In the meantime, we can hope expectantly for the continued chipping away of the unemployment rate. Lee County possesses the foundation for good business: we have a great community with one of the best water and sewer systems in the region. We’re centrally located near a strong highway system. We have a top-notch community college that is able and willing to help train whatever kind of workforce is needed. And we obviously have an eager workforce in need of jobs.

So while the recent trend shows some movement, there’s plenty of room for things to get better faster.