Pondering Arkansas’ Puzzling Jobs Picture

Earlier this afternoon, I did a quick interview with KFSM-TV, Channel 5, in northwest Arkansas, the local CBS affiliate, on the region’s jobs outlook and the puzzlement over some metropolitan unemployment numbers ArkansasBusiness.com and others reported on Tuesday.

According to the unemployment story, by ArkansasBusiness.com reporter Mark Hengel

Arkansas’ six metropolitan areas once again have shown better year-over-year employment statistics than the rest of the nation.

For the second month in a row, Jonesboro’s unemployment rate fell more than any area in the nation.

The city’s unemployment rate in October clocked in at 4.3 percent, compared with 4.9 percent for the same period a year ago. In all, five of Arkansas’ metropolitan areas fell in October when compared with the October 2007 numbers, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data (PDF).

This raised eyebrows among many, considering all we’re hearing about recession and job cuts (particularly the loss of 350,000 jobs nationwide coming Friday). It seems especially unbelievable in Fort Smith, which has been rocked by numerous layoff announcements, including two today.

The biggest of those has been Whirlpool, which announced in September that it will lay off 700 of its 2,100 workers beginning in November. Others announcing layoffs include Riverside Furniture (250 by January) and Jarden Process Solutions (93 also by January).

So why these numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show sunny times in Arkansas? We think it over after the jump.

In Fort Smith’s case, the big layoffs from Whirpool (and Jarden and Riverside) haven’t fully hit yet. Most folks who’ll be let go won’t be out until January. Others probably just missed the count. Rheem Manufacturing’s Fort Smith plant cut 185 in late October, likely too early to be reflected in the bureau’s report for that month.

In short, the reports don’t always reflect what’s happening on the ground in real time.

As for the state as a whole, Arkansas is simply performing better in this recession than others. Some of this is because Arkansas doesn’t see the soaring highs and the crushing lows of the U.S. economy (we escaped the worst of the housing mess, with only northwest Arkansas suffering symptoms).

And, as noted by economist Jeff Collins in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s coverage Wednesday, Arkansas has a lot going for it. Employment in state government is strong, Wal-Mart is performing well in the down economy, and jobs in Arkansas’ fast-growing food-processing sector are fueling growth.

Still, it’s probably going to be worse in Arkansas. As previously announced layoffs take effect and new ones hit, Arkansas will surely see its unemployment numbers rise. To what extent we’ll bear the brunt of the country’s unemployment wave remains to be seen.

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