Unemployment rate up, but so is the local labor force

Waynesboro’s unemployment rate shot past the 9 percent barrier in January, and unemployment across the Greater Augusta region was up significantly across the board, according to data released by the Virginia Employment Commission on Friday. But continue reading below the fold here, because I think I might have noticed something unusual, to say the least, in the numbers that could be indicative of the region’s relative sturdiness economically.

First to the usual round of bad economic news. The unemployment rate in Waynesboro went from 7.9 percent in December to 9.2 percent in January. The rate was at 4.3 percent in January 2008. The number of unemployed in the city went from 446 in January 2008 to 991 in January 2009, an increase of 545 people all told.

Statewide, the unemployment rate was at 6.4 percent in January 2009, up sharply from the 5.1 percent figure for December 2008. State unemployment was at 3.8 percent in January 2008.

Unemployment in Staunton in the January 2009 data was at 7.3 percent, up from 6.1 percent in December 2008 and 3.9 percent in January 2008. The VEC data had 453 Staunton residents as unemployed in January 2008 and 887 unemployed in January 2009, an increase of 434 people.

The unemployment rate in Augusta County was 6.6 percent in the January 2009 data, up from 5.2 percent in December 2008 and 3.1 percent in January 2008. The state numbers had 1,197 county residents out of work in January 2008 and 2,572 out of work in January 2009, an increase of 1,375 people.

Compiling these numbers into a regional rubric, unemployment was at 3.5 percent in Greater Augusta in January 2008 and 7.2 percent in January 2009.

Now to the anomaly in the numbers that I can’t explain, which came as I was compiling those regional numbers. The local labor force in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro grew from 59,947 in January 2008 to 62,073 in January 2009, an increase of 2,126 workers. Unemployment grew by a similar raw number, from 2,096 people in January 2008 to 4,450 in January 2009, an increase of 2,354 workers.

It initially struck me as odd that the labor force would be growing as the number of unemployed was also growing, and by similar numbers, so I checked the data here against some other local area numbers to see if this was something unique to Greater Augusta or something worth exploring more, and I think after doing that we may have something to look at in more detail.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle and Harrisonburg-Rockingham labor markets actually shrank in size from January 2008 to January 2009, albeit slightly in each case – the Charlottesville-Albemarle market going from 104,854 in January ’08 to 104,487 in January ’09, and Harrisonburg-Rockingham going from 65,796 in January ’08 to 54,904 in January ’09, even as the number of people unemployed in each area shot up, in Charlottesville-Albemarle going from 3,509 in January 2008 to 5,566 in January 2009 and Harrisonburg going from 2,171 in January 2008 to 3,863 in January 2009.

Data for Virginia as a whole also suggest that we might be seeing something out of the ordinary in the Greater Augusta market. The state labor force grew by 51,460 workers from January 2008 to January 2009, while the number of unemployed was almost double that growth figure, jumping by 108,440 workers in the same time span.

I’m at a loss for what to make of these numbers, because as we’ve seen here, it’s not even an across-the-region trend given that the labor forces in nearby Greater Charlottesville and Greater Harrisonburg are flat, and the bulk of the growth in the state labor force came as expected in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads (Greater Richmond was also flat).

What I’d be interested to find out is where the growth in the local labor force is coming from – is it purely local growth, is it an influx of newcomers? – and also where those new jobs are coming from. The most recent industry-specific data is only fresh to the second quarter of 2008, so it might be awhile before we get some of these answers.

For now, all I can say is, there’s something there.


Story by Chris Graham

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