Zach's Corner Store

Why Chatham’s low unemployment rate is misleading

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/13/19

No one is going to complain about a low unemployment rate. No one wants to complain about it. But as people involved in Chatham’s economy on a day-to-day basis will tell you, and the numbers indicate, that doesn’t mean Chatham is necessarily in good shape when it comes to jobs — and for several reasons.

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Zach's Corner Store

Why Chatham’s low unemployment rate is misleading

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Posted

No one is going to complain about a low unemployment rate. No one wants to complain about it.

A relatively low rate can mean a lot of things, but mainly this: the vast majority of people wanting to work are working. Chatham is no different. In the most recent data from the N.C. Dept. of Commerce, 34,614 Chatham residents have some form of employment, the highest number in the last five years. That accounts for 3.8 percent unemployment, lower than the state rate (4.4 percent), tied for the sixth-lowest in the state and matching Wake for the lowest in the central North Carolina area.

But as people involved in Chatham’s economy on a day-to-day basis will tell you, and the numbers indicate, that doesn’t mean Chatham is necessarily in good shape when it comes to jobs — and for several reasons.

First of all, more than 60 percent of Chatham’s employed leave the county to go to work, according to the 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment (CCCA), with an average drive time of 27 minutes. The assessment also said 8.6 percent of residents travel an hour or more to work.

This means that, while these people are employed, some of the fruits of their labor doesn’t directly come back into the county. While property taxes and a lot of expenses like home and rental payments are made in the county, both fiscal and social capital get spent elsewhere. This is a concern for Alyssa Byrd, president of the Chatham Economic Developmnent Corporation.

“They lose an element of their social infrastructure from not working here,” she said, referencing participation in civic clubs and shopping at local grocery stores and filling their cars at local gas stations.

Secondly, even the people that do work here don’t necessarily make enough to make a good living. According to the Department of Commerce, the average hourly wage in Chatham last year was $18.75. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, an adult with one child in Chatham must earn a living wage of $24.84 per hour to support their family. That’s a more than six-dollar difference.

But what about the median household income being so high? Yes, Chatham has one of the highest in the state at $59,684 a year, and 29.3 percent of households make $100,000 or more per year. But 10.7 percent earn less than $15,000 every 12 months. The CCCA referenced focus group participation in its assessment of the data.

“Residents in both the CCCS [Chatham County Community Survey] and focus groups raised concerns over the availability of local jobs and good wages,” the assessment stated. “Low income/poverty was the most frequently cited issue affecting community well-being in the CCCS. In focus groups, lack of jobs, livable wages and poverty were common concerns of residents.”

Rosalind Cross, director of workforce development at Central Carolina Community College, said low wages affect both workers and employers.

“It is often harder to improve employee moral when the wages are low,” Cross said. “Longevity, dedication, and commitment may be sacrificed as a result and this creates a perpetual revolving door of employment needs for the company.

Third, businesses in Chatham are having a hard time finding the necessary workers, considering the low unemployment rate, and that affects a county’s ability to keep current industries and attract new companies.

“It does make it a little more difficult for the businesses that are growing to recruit new employees, and for any new businesses looking in, their first question is where are my workers, what’s the talent, what’s the labor force look like,” Byrd said. “When you have really low unemployment, employees are an ongoing cost. It’s a big consideration of what the wages are what’s available in a labor shed.”

At the recent Chatham Development Briefing, an event hosted last month by the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, Cross told the assembled business leaders that there are “severe shortages” in jobs like nursing and welding, and other companies are looking for help in a swath of areas, like mechanical technicians, truck drivers, chefs and cooks, certified nursing assistants, manufacturing and throughout the school system.

Additionally, Cross said, those without jobs are having a hard time meeting requirements for experience and skills.

“Finding jobs that provide competitive wages and benefits that lead to true self-sufficiency,” she said. “They’re having trouble with stringent experience requirements. They’re not able to overcome that barrier of getting into a position because of those stringent job requirements.”

So what does this all mean? It means that there are still a lot of people in Chatham County that don’t have a job or have a job that’s going to adequately provide them housing, healthcare, childcare, transportation and other necessities, and until that changes, we’re still going to see poverty as a primary concern, despite the low unemployment rate.

But there’s hope, according to Byrd.

“I’m OK with crossing county lines for employment for everyone, but you should at least have the opportunity to work where you live, and that’s what we don’t have right now,” she said. “We have very skilled and educated people, and the jobs are elsewhere. It’s coming. We’ve clearly got all the talent here because they’re going elsewhere. Let’s show those figures to people, to businesses, and let them make the decision. We’re getting there.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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