JOPLIN, Mo. —
Though the Joplin unemployment rate has been lower in the past, never have as many people been working in Jasper and Newton counties as right now.
More people were employed in the two-county Joplin metropolitan area in September than in April 2007, when the unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, because the labor force is larger now.
“There are more people employed than really we’ve ever had,” said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
There were 82,279 people employed in the Joplin metro area in September, compared with just under 81,000 in April 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In September, the unemployment rate for the Joplin metro area also fell below 6 percent for the first time since December 2008, when the recession was beginning.
The 5.3 percent unemployment rate in September was nearly a full percentage point better than the 6.2 percent rate in August and a 2.2 percent improvement from last September, according to federal figures. The year-over-year change for the metro area ranked 12th best in the nation.
The unemployment rate in the Joplin metro area reached its recession high in June 2009, at 9.2 percent. The five-year low was 3.9 percent in March 2007. With a work force of more than 80,000, each percent represents more than 800 jobs. With the unemployment rate dropping nearly 4 percent from that 2009 high, that translates into nearly 3,200 people back at work.
Employment growth can be attributed in part to continuing efforts to recover from the May 2011 tornado, with more contractors and builders in the area, but also to general economic improvement happening statewide, experts say.
John Fougere, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said Joplin’s economy not only reflects rebuilding from the storm, but it also mirrors statewide improvements.
“It’s encouraging to see Joplin following the state’s rebounding economy,” Fougere said. “The overall state economy has seen a steadily falling unemployment rate.”
Missouri’s unemployment rate in September also was at its lowest point since December 2008, at 6.9 percent. Fougere said more than 46,000 new jobs have been added in Missouri in 2011 and 2012 to date.
Springfield also had an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent in September, while the Fayetteville-Rogers-Springdale, Ark., metro area, which also includes McDonald County, Mo., was at 4.9 percent. Jefferson City, Columbia and St. Joseph all had unemployment rates of 5 percent or less.
Fougere said construction and manufacturing jobs were up in Joplin. There also was job growth in areas including wholesale and retail sales, finance, insurance, health care and education.
O’Brian and Fougere each attributed the growth in the labor pool to people who previously had stopped looking for a job now rejoining the work force.
Fougere said, “If they perceive the economy’s better, they re-enter the labor force.”
O’Brian also said some employers are now finding it difficult to locate skilled workers.
“Anytime people can see an opportunity to enhance their skills, that’s a good thing,” O’Brian added. He also encouraged those seeking work to visit a Missouri Career Center to take a test to receive a Career Readiness Certificate based on their skills. He said it helps potential employees and employers.
Jasen Jones, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board of Southwest Missouri, said most construction jobs and some others are related to tornado recovery. He said manufacturing is rebounding, with companies such as Modine and Able Manufacturing hiring this year, but that sector is not yet at its pre-recession level in the area.
Jones also said local manufacturing is broad-based, and jobs aren’t tied to a specific industry, and therefore the area wasn’t as badly affected by the recession as areas that are heavily dependent upon one sector, such as automotive.
“We produce the components that have demand during a recession,” Jones added. “Overall, Joplin’s in a good position.”
Work force growth
According to state and chamber officials, a number of jobs have been added locally that are not related to tornado recovery, and more are coming. Some of these jobs may not be reflected in the latest unemployment numbers, including:
• Bemis Co., which manufactures flexible packaging in the Joplin-Webb City Industrial Park, recently announced plans to hire 66 employees. A company official said 23 of those jobs have been filled already.
• Coca-Cola Bottling Co. announced in July it will build a new $5.5 million distribution center that will open next year and add 45 employees.
• The Blue Buffalo Co., a pet-food maker, announced last month that it would invest $85 million to build a plant in Joplin and hire up to 150 people. Production is set to begin in 2015.
Jones said the job growth also has occurred in transportation, which includes trucking, logistics and storage. Call center jobs and other customer service jobs have been added, too.
Health care is another sector where employment is growing, officials say.
Dozens of construction workers are employed building the new Mercy Hospital Joplin near Hearnes Boulevard and Interstate 44, but until it opens in 2015 there will be a limited number of openings for the hospital itself, said human resources manager Colette St. Peter. She said the hospital is currently continuing to hire nurses, security officers and physical and occupational therapists.
She said that will change as the opening draws closer.
“We’re anticipating that in the coming months there will be preliminary work done to anticipate what our staffing is and what we will need when we open in 2015,” St. Peter said. She said the recruitment and hiring will ramp up in advance of the hospital’s opening.
Freeman Health System has experienced increased demand after the tornado. It responded by spending around $15 million to remodel and equip the fifth and sixth floors of the Gary and Donna Hall Tower at Freeman Hospital West.
The fifth floor is a cardiac medical unit that now has 72 employees. The sixth floor has a transitional care unit that just opened and a surgical intensive care unit, which will open soon. The sixth floor will have around 70 more employees. Each floor has 24,000 square feet of space.
Deborah Chiodo, chief of human resources for Freeman, said those positions are in addition to normal hiring.
“I can tell you so far this year, we have hired 244 RNs, compared to 282 last year,” Chiodo said of registered nurses. She said Freeman has hired 44 new doctors since May 2011.
Besides doctors and nurses, Chiodo said there also are positions in food service, housekeeping, information technology, maintenance, unit secretaries, radiology technicians and many other categories.
“You can think of us almost like a small city,” she said.
Here is a comparison of unemployment rates for September 2012:
United States—7.9 percent
Columbia, Mo. 4.2 percent
Jefferson City, Mo.—4.9 percent
Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, Ark.—4.9 percent
St. Joseph, Mo.—5.0 percent
Joplin, Mo.—5.3 percent
Springfield, Mo. —5.3 percent
Tulsa, Okla. —5.3 percent
Kansas City, Mo.-Kan.—6.1 percent
Wichita, Kan.—6.2 percent
St. Louis, Mo.-Ill.—7.0 percent
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics