The rate of job growth in the Mahoning Valley continued its sluggish crawl in July, staying above 8 percent where it’s been for the past six months and indicating that the labor market likely will remain flat until next year.
Figures released by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services on Tuesday show the combined unemployment rate in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties dropped from 8.7 percent in July 2012 to 8.5 percent last month. The labor force shrank year-over-year, and there were 500 fewer employed people.
“If we get three or four months showing the same trend, that tells you something; when things are flat for several months, that also tells me something,” said Tod Porter, an economics professor at Youngstown State University. “Because employment is basically flat, the market really isn’t improving. It’s status quo and we’re a good distance away from a healthy local labor market with those kind of numbers.”
The unemployment rate has averaged about 8.3 percent through the first seven months of the year. Last year, for the same period, it averaged about 7.3 percent.
This year, though, federal tax increases, cuts in government spending and weak income growth have helped to slow down Northeast Ohio’s economy. Moderate setbacks in manufacturing and consumer spending have helped to temper job growth in 2013, said Mekael Teshome, an economist at PNC Bank.
“Manufacturing drove a lot of growth last year, and now some of those drivers are starting to shift to things like construction and investment as the housing market across the country continues to rebound,” Teshome said. “Part of the story for Northeast Ohio, including Youngstown, is at the macro level as we shift growth drivers. Manufacturing should throttle back and you’ll probably see that in unemployment.”
Earlier this month, the Federal International Trade Administration said Ohio was on pace to export a record amount of goods in 2013. In the first half of the year, the state exported $25.3 billion worth of merchandise, up 3 percent since last year.
That’s not a bad thing at all, but Teshome said the region relies so heavily on manufacturing that the slightest slowdown in the sector is bad news for its labor market. PNC believes that as some of the factors weighing on the market this year ease, 2014 will be a better year for hiring and consumption.
To be sure, the Valley’s economy has seen some bright spots this year, with major manufacturers opening new facilities or expanding, small retailers opening their doors throughout the region and oil and gas drilling continuing at a steady pace, while the housing market continues to improve and auto sales are strong.
But economists had predicted slow growth in 2013, as the country made some of its best gains coming out of the recession last year. Though the Valley’s jobless rate consistently has remained below the state’s rate, which was 7.2 percent last month, the Youngstown area has seen some of the best job growth among Ohio’s metropolitan regions in recent months.
Vic Ing, president of the Alliance Solutions Group of the Mahoning Valley, which provides staffing services across nine industries, including health care and manufacturing, said he remains optimistic about the local economy, noting that there are some new trends that underscore how it’s changed since the recession.
Ing said demand from employers remains strong across all the industries Alliance serves, but he added that the most coveted trait of new workers is skilled labor, which he said can often be difficult to find depending on the position.
Such a shortage, in some instances, Ing added, has led current employers to make lucrative counteroffers if a worker tries to pitch his skills for a higher salary to a new company. Ing stressed that his firm undoubtedly is seeing more employers developing strategies to retain their most valuable workers — or the ones they might have parted with during the recession.