As expected, unemployment in the Mahoning Valley ticked up in December as a result of companies’ laying off temporary workers as a busy holiday season ended.
Yet December’s combined rate of 7.7 percent across all three valley counties was still a reminder that the local economy continued a slow push toward recovery when compared with December 2011, when 2,500 more workers were unemployed for a rate of 8.6 percent, according to labor market statistics from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
December’s increase, up from 7.3 percent in November, doesn’t spell decline in the local labor force, however, said Cleveland-based economist George Zeller. Local data released by ODJFS are not seasonally adjusted and do not account for employment trends after the holidays.
“Seasonal layoffs start picking up in December when all the Christmas workers are laid off,” Zeller said. “It gets much worse in February and January. There’s more layoffs in the winter than at any other time in the year. When you don’t account for those seasonal factors it’s hard to tell if there’s any real change.”
One clue, though, Zeller said, was in statewide data released last week. Those figures, which are seasonally adjusted, showed that Ohio’s unemployment rate actually declined, falling from 6.8 percent to 6.7 percent. The data come with a caveat, as the state actually lost 9,400 jobs, making December a particularly grim month for Ohio’s work force, which declined by 8,000 workers and led to a deceiving drop in unemployment.
Overall, more discouraged workers, those who have been seeking employment for six months or more, are dropping out of the job search. In Mahoning and Trumbull counties, the labor force shrank by 800 in December when compared to the same time a year earlier, but Columbiana County managed to add 500 workers.
Zeller cautioned that the numbers can’t be scrutinized too closely.
“Let’s not panic too much; we’re still recovering, but it’s too slow — we need to speed up our rate of recovery,” he said. “Generally speaking, year-over-year we are recovering, but we need to remain cautious about all these numbers.”
Mahoning County boasted the lowest unemployment rate last month at 7.3 percent, while Columbiana County was close behind at 7.6 percent. Trumbull County’s rate is still flagging at 8.0 percent, but still an improvement from December 2011 when it was nearly 9 percent.
Bill Turner, a work-force administrator at the Trumbull County One Stop, which provides career-assistance services, agreed with Zeller and said December is traditionally a slow month for employers. He added that everything from construction and warehouse distribution to retail and even holiday travel plans upend data at this time of the year.
Turner also said that Trumbull’s unemployment rate has remained high in recent months because of the “ripple effect” caused by the layoff of about 1,200 workers when the RG Steel mill in Warren was shuttered over the summer.
Compounding December’s less than stellar figures is the annual shutdown of the General Motors Lordstown complex.Workers there can make claims for unemployment benefits when the factory is closed for a matter of weeks each year to adjust its supply chain heading into the new year.
Regardless of what Turner said are positive signs of recovery, the Trumbull County One Stop is still serving a high number of job seekers and dislocated workers with additional training and other assistance.
“Things are picking up; we’re still on the fringe,” he said. “We still haven’t realized the full potential of shale yet, and we’re seeing an uptick in manufacturing and its suppliers. It’s not leaps and bounds, but they’re steps in the right direction.’’