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The latest economic tea leaf for Missouri holds good news.

The statewide unemployment rate fell slightly from August to September, down to 3.1%, which gets the state near the low of 3.0% experienced last summer — the lowest we have been in 20 years.

Unemployment for the Joplin Metro Area (Jasper and Newton counties) was 2.9% in August, the last month for which data is available. That just a hair about the record low of 2.7% we saw last summer.

While good news, unemployment data is not without flaws, and taken separately, it provides an incomplete picture of what is going on. However, over time and when read with other data, it offers a perspective on the direction of the state and local economy.

The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center also surveyed more than 1,600 Missouri employers to help fill in the picture in September.

"Survey results showed 47 percent of respondents indicating a shortage of skilled workers. The increased demand could benefit Missouri’s workforce by encouraging heightened wages and more training opportunities. Survey data indicated that 87 percent of employers are addressing the skilled worker shortage by hiring less experienced workers and providing training."

The survey also indicated more hiring, as a third of those who responded said they will add jobs in the coming month.

The August unemployment report for the state came with this interesting bit of data too: "As reported by MOSourceLink, an average of 40,797 new jobs were created each year by small, first-time employers over the past five years, making up a significant portion of the new jobs added to the state’s economy. ... While these new and young firms, which have fewer than 20 employees, are focused around population centers, they also exist throughout the state and across a variety of industries. The highest density of firms hiring their first employee in Missouri in 2018 were in health care and social assistance; information, transportation and warehousing; and professional, scientific, and technical services."

It's always dicey to read too much into numbers, but some things are becoming clearer.

• Creating an environment that lures start-ups and small businesses — a place where they can prosper — is a good bet.

• The emphasis on skills training, such as that provided by the Advanced Training and Technology Center in Joplin, is another smart bet.

• Fears that jobs will be lost by raising the minimum wage, as Missouri did last year with a statewide vote — the minimum wage steps up gradually to $12 in 2023 — appear to be overstated.

• And finally, we need to remember that Joplin is a middle-class and working-class town, and it thrives to the extent that its middle class and working class thrive and is stagnant to the extent that those wages are stagnant. Upward pressure on wages and the expansion of opportunities are good things for Joplin, where the average wage remains nearly $10,000 below the state average.

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