By NEMS Daily Journal
Northeast Mississippi has finally lost its three-year grip on double-digit unemployment rates.
With December’s jobless rate coming in at 9.6 percent, the region’s jobless rate averaged 9.4 percent for all of 2012.
It’s the lowest average annual rate since 2008, when the recession began to take hold here.
Entering 2012, the region’s jobless rate had been in double digits for 35 of the previous 36 months.
But last year saw nine of the 12 months log rates under 10 percent, a string not seen since 2008.
Obviously, more jobs helped lower the rate.
As the housing market improved nationwide, the region saw the furniture industry benefit. The industry is closely tied with how housing fares: The more homes sold, the more furniture is sold. Several manufacturers, including Southern Comfort, H.M. Richards and Washington Furniture expanded operations during the year.
Other manufacturing companies – mostly existing industries – also expanded and added jobs.
And Toyota Motor Corp., with its plant in Blue Springs, reached its promised employment level of 2,000 workers. The Japanese automaker marked its one-year anniversary in October.
The employment numbers for the 16-county region have improved steadily since the depths of the Great Recession, which battered the economy on all levels.
In 2011, unemployment averaged 11.5 percent in the region, a slight improvement from 11.7 percent in 2010 and 11.2 percent in 2009.
Lee County, the most populous county in the region and its economic hub, wasn’t immune to the economic downturn – or its upswing.
In 2009, the county’s unemployment rate averaged 10.4 percent. The next two years saw the rate average 10.6 percent. Finally, last year, it was back down to 8.7 percent. During that four-year span, despite historically high unemployment rates, Lee County managed to add a net 3,100 jobs.
Companies like Cooper Tire, MTD, Advanced Innovations, Alan White and Toyota supplier APMM all contributed.
Northeast Mississippi finished 2012 with a higher unemployment rate in December than a month earlier, with five counties registering rates 10 percent or higher. That’s half as many as December 2011, however. In addition, last month’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate was a full percentage point lower than a year earlier.
How 2013 shapes up remains to be seen. Employment will depend on the economy.
Budget talks in Washington could impact consumer confidence, which is critical because consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the U.S. economy.
Last week, state economist Darrin Webb said he expected Mississippi’s growth to be slow, but better than 2012.
“The U.S. economy is growing. It just doesn’t have a lot of momentum,” he said. “The state’s economy is growing, as well, but it’s growing much, much slower.”