Garment industry closings push jobless rate higher
By Jane Hill
Northeast Mississippi’s 15 counties posted an unemployment rate higher than state and national averages in December, according to figures released by the Mississippi Employment Security Commission Thursday.
Northeast Mississippi’s combined unemployment rate stood at about 5.5 percent when statewide Mississippi had a jobless rate of 4.9 percent compared to the U.S. average of 5.2 percent for December.
The state’s new jobless rate compared favorably to the 5.8 percent reading in December 1994 and also marked the second consecutive month that the state bettered the nation’s jobless rate.
Notable gains were made statewide in retail trade employment and in the growing gaming industry. Agricultural regions of the state generally registered an increase in joblessness.
In Northeast Mississippi Lafayette County had the lowest unemployment rate for the month with 2.5 percent, the second lowest rate in the state.
Monroe County led the region with the highest unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, followed by Alcorn County with a 6.1 percent jobless rate.
Lawrence Chandler, president of the Lafayette County-Oxford Economic Development Foundation, said it is nothing new for Lafayette County to lead the region and sometimes the state in low unemployment.
“The university is the anchor for our low rate,” Chandler said. “And we also have a rapidly growing medical community that is employing more and more people.”
Lafayette County will take a hit next month with the anticipated closing of Oxford Manufacturing and the loss of about 135 jobs. The clothing manufacturer announced it will close its doors Feb. 1 because of a loss of contract orders.
Chandler said he anticipates the building now occupied by Oxford Manufacturing will be filled with another industry soon.
“We are already interviewing prospects for that building, so I don’t think the workers displaced by that closing will be out of a job for long.”
Keith Blaylock, director of the Economic Development Partnership of Monroe County, said though the 8.7 percent unemployment rate is not as low as the county would like, it is down from the 12.1 percent rate the county logged in November.
Blaylock said most of the county residents now in the job market were put there by the closing of the Simmons Furniture manufacturing plant, which shut down in November at the cost of 350 jobs.
Monroe County’s job market will also be adversely affected this year with the anticipated closing of the Red Kap clothing manufacturing plant on March 1. That closing will cost about 215 jobs. Red Kap announced it would make smaller layoffs at its divisions in Lee and Prentiss counties in March as well.
Blaylock said closings in the garment industry have been a major obstacle to lowering the unemployment rate and may continue to trouble Northeast Mississippi, which has had a long history with the industry.
“Eight months ago our jobless rate was at 5 percent. Now, eight short months later, we are way up from that,” he said.
In recruiting new industry, Blaylock said his office is emphasizing the skills and dedication of its labor force and seeking industry compatible with its experience or at least ones for which the workers can be retrained in the shortest possible time.