3Qs: Darrin Webb, state economist

WEBB

WEBB

On this Labor Day holiday weekend, State Economist Darrin Webb answered questions from the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison about Mississippi’s economy and workers.

Q. What is the jobs situation right now in the state? What is the short-term outlook and the longer term outlook, say over a 10-year period?

A. Right now I would characterize the jobs picture as sluggish at best. If you look at the first seven months of 2014 and compare to the same period of 2013, we are up 1 percent. That is decent growth compared to what we have seen since about 2000 but it is about a third of the average annual growth we saw over the 40 years leading up to 2000.

We believe the state and the nation as a whole are in a period of relatively slow growth that will persist at least for the next several years. If you look at employment for the past six months and compare to the previous six months, you see growth is up only an annualized 0.3 percent. This suggests that we have very little momentum in terms of job growth right now.

We do expect the economy to pick up in 2015 and beyond. I look for gradual strengthening rather than things just taking off. This is what we expect for the nation and Mississippi will follow a similar pattern.

Q. It seems in many ways Mississippi is going backward or at least not progressing in many areas, such as educational attainment, health care coverage and overall quality of life. Is that a perception that is wrong? Where are the bright spots?

A. Mississippi has some very well-documented systemic problems. Compared to other states, we are generally less educated, less healthy and more likely to come from a single-parent home. As a consequence, we are generally poorer than our counterparts in other states. The thing about systemic problems is that progress is exceedingly slow. But Mississippi has made progress in dealing with these issues. Take for example education attainment. In 2000, 72.9 percent of the population 25 years old or older had at least a high school diploma or the equivalent. By 2012 that figure had risen to 82.3 percent. Progress also has been made in the share of the population with college degrees. We are seeing improvement in some of these other areas as well, but again, it comes slow.

Q. What could be done to improve the lot of Mississippi workers?

A. Mississippi workers on average have less human capital than their counterparts in other states. Human capital includes everything that makes you a productive worker – education, skills, health, stable family life, etc. The list is quite long. The only way to improve the lot of Mississippi workers is to close that gap. The problem is not so much complex as it has many different fronts. There are a variety of areas in which improvements can be made – reducing dropouts, encouraging lifelong learning, reducing drugs abuse, encouraging diet and exercise, encouraging marriage.

Progress is being made and certainly we wish it was faster. But most of these issues have at their root cultural practices that have to be changed and changing culture is a long-term endeavor.