Mississippi unemployment rate still rising

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

VICKSBURG — Roy Nickson has spent so much time at a job service office here that the employees know him by name.

The 56-year-old Vicksburg resident said that after six months of looking, he doesn’t feel much closer to landing new employment.

“It’s hard and it’s slow right now,” said Nickson, who said this is the first time he’s been out of work in about 30 years, having worked a decade as a cook and 25 years in painting and construction.

Mississippi’s unemployment rate has drifted slowly upward during 2011, hovering at 10.6 percent in October. That tied with Michigan for the third highest nationwide, behind No. 1 Nevada and No. 2 California.

Mississippi is adding jobs, and it’s just that employment growth hasn’t kept up with the expanding number of job seekers.

Nickson was hardly alone Thursday as he used a computer to look for restaurant jobs at the WIN Jobs Center. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security counted 2,400 people seeking work in Warren County in October, the most recent month measured. Warren had an 11.3 percent unemployment rate in October, at the midpoint among the state’s 82 counties.

As many as 150 job seekers lined up outside the Vicksburg office before it opened one November morning. Word had gotten out that Tyson Foods was going to hire 24 people to handle cases of chicken at $8.60 an hour at its plant in eastern Warren County. Police were called when the crowd became unruly, but some applicants did get jobs, said Terry Hodges, who manages the office.

The broadest measure of unemployment — which includes people who are only looking for work sporadically, who have given up looking, or who are working part time because they can’t find a full-time job — averaged 16.5 percent in Mississippi over the 12 months ended Sept. 30.

Almost as many Mississippians said they had a job in October as in January 2008, the high-water mark for pre-recession employment. But the number of people looking for jobs in the state began growing in late 2009 and is 4.5 percent greater than before the recession began. That compares to almost no growth in the national labor force.

Marianne Hill, an economist with the state’s College Board, said people who had stepped to the sidelines may have entered the job market as the economy began to improve.

Besides surveying people each month to ask if they have a job, officials also ask employers each month how many people are on their payrolls. That separate survey, which many economists use as their primary indicator of job-market health, shows much more sluggish job growth in Mississippi. After dropping 6.6 percent from early 2008 to early 2010, state payrolls have only recovered by 1.8 percent.

Still, as national growth has steadied this fall, Mississippi payroll numbers are showing encouraging signs.

“We’re definitely seeing improvement and job growth is picking up,” Kim Fraser, an economist with BBVA Compass bank of Birmingham, Ala., said of the national economy. “The job situation has been improving. As slow as it’s going, it is going somewhere.”

A disadvantage for Mississippi is that it depends more heavily than the nation as a whole on manufacturing and government jobs, Hill said. Those two sectors have shed jobs this year in the state.

Manufacturing though, may be looking up, said Sohini Chowdhury, an economist with Moody’s Analytics who watches Mississippi’s economy. She said the recent opening of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi plant in Blue Springs is the “biggest piece of good news” that the state’s fragile economy has right now.

Another problem both in Mississippi and nationwide is what experts call structural unemployment, where jobs in certain industries permanently go away.

“Those skills don’t necessarily transfer to other positions,” said Fraser, who helps write her bank’s monthly look at structural unemployment.

In Vicksburg, a handful of manufacturing plants closed or shed most of their jobs during the recession. Hodges said that counselors tell people who want to return to factory work that they need to broaden their search beyond Warren County to Jackson or even Natchez — 70 miles away.

At the same time, some companies that need other skills are hiring. For example, Bowhead Information and Technical Services had 11 specialized computer positions posted in the state’s job database, among only 36 total positions within 25 miles of Vicksburg. (Most available jobs are not posted on the state list, officials say.)

As people spend more and more time looking for jobs, some of them consider retraining. Curtis Rozier, who was making a resume and looking for retail jobs Thursday, said he’s thinking about going back to school.

“You need a degree or certificate and somebody you know,” said the 28-year-old Vicksburg resident.

Rozier’s last job, driving a truck, is actually one of the occupations that officials in the job center steer people toward, along with health care.

In 2010, 44 percent of Mississippi’s unemployed workers were out of a job for more than six months, just about the same as the national average. The average length of unemployment in Mississippi was more than seven months.

Though Hodges said he doesn’t see any prejudice against hiring the long-term unemployed, Fraser and some other economists fret that people like Nickson face higher hurdles.

“They have a harder time finding jobs because they’re further removed from working life,” she said. “Those skills may not be as fresh as someone who just lost their job.”