The “Great Recession,” which began in December 2007, has officially been over since mid-2009. But if you think conditions still seem pretty bad, especially in North Carolina, you aren’t alone.
Regardless of whatever the bankers and economists have to say about the definition of a “recession” in hindsight, the lack of jobs remains a serious problem for most of us nearly five years later. That message is brought home with solid data and analysis in a report the North Carolina Justice Center released this week, showing that this recession resulted in a far more depressed job market for far longer than in any other recent recessions. Perhaps most sobering, the report shows that North Carolina has been especially hard hit because so many of the jobs that have disappeared are in industries that aren’t expected to bounce back.
“At the 52nd month after the start of previous recessions in 1985, 1994 and 2005, the state’s unemployment rate stood at 5.4 percent or lower, while the state currently faces a job deficit of more than 532,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate rests at 9.1 percent,” the Justice Center report notes.
Looking more closely at North Carolina joblessness, the report explains, “While the percentage of North Carolinians employed never dropped below 62 percent in 1990 and 2001, the employment-to-population ratio fell below 57 percent in 2009, where it has largely remained for the 34 months since the end of the recession.”
The numbers are probably even worse than they look. Unemployment numbers typically ignore people who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work — a group that has grown significantly as hope for recovery has dwindled. In addition, many people facing dimming prospects and mounting bills to pay have accepted low-paying jobs, or even taken on multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. A side effect is fewer positions available for young people wanting to enter the labor force, causing them to opt to live at home longer than normal, further dampening the real estate and construction markets.
The reason we’re stuck near bottom? Too many of the jobs we’ve lost were in the industries that have dried up in North Carolina, such as textiles and furniture manufacturing. The loss of construction jobs has also been a serious blow. While it’s encouraging to point out local exceptions to these negative trends — some new production lines at a local textile plant or a re-opened furniture operation — we shouldn’t be fooled into missing the message of the broader trends. The Justice Center report describes a “critical absence of available employment opportunities” in North Carolina.
If this state is going to have a positive economic future, our business and local economic development leaders need to focus on recruiting new industry jobs in sectors that can be expected to grow over the next several decades. The folks at the Lincoln Economic Development Association deserve credit for working to bring in new jobs in plastics, hydraulics and other growth industries.
Some of our local industries have sounded alarms we need to pay attention to — they can’t seem to find enough workers with the education foundation needed for their jobs, and they could prevent additional investment in this part of North Carolina. We also need both state and local education leaders work to bring the instruction needed for many of these new job to our schools and community colleges.
Most importantly, we must not be complacent. We remain mired in economic despair. What’s been tried hasn’t worked, no matter what you hear from people in office who are hoping to stay there. We need fresh ideas, especially ones that recognize today’s situation isn’t the same as the economic recoveries of years past; it will have different solutions as well.