To the uninitiated, the latest un- employment data for Ohio and the Mahoning Valley would beckon blaring trumpets, falling confetti and popping wine corks. They need only feast their eyes on reports issued late last month from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the state’s unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent in May. That’s the lowest rate since April 2007 and mirrors the generally accepted full employment jobless rate of 5.5 percent for the nation.
In the Mahoning Valley, equally cheery news arrived from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which heralded unemployment in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties at a post-recession low of 5.9 percent this May.
But lest Ohioans get too jubilant, silence those trumpets, hold that confetti and recork those wine bottles. A closer examination of that data uncovers a clearer picture of the angst and hardship that continue to wallop the economy of our state and region.
As it turns out, the rosy employment numbers mask several dark realities. For starters, the impact of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 continues to pack a mean punch. Even though the state has added about 350,000 jobs since the depths of the Great Recession, an additional 200,000 jobs are needed just to match 2006 employment levels.
In addition, the size of the active labor force has shrunk dramatically. In the Mahoning Valley, the size of the labor force dropped by 5,000 people between May 2013 and May 2014 alone.
Statewide tens of thousands Ohioans who have given up all hope of finding employment simply have disappeared from the radar of state and federal employment-number crunchers and contribute to making the data artificially low.
What’s more, the Buckeye State continues to trail the nation in actual job growth. Cleveland economist George Zeller has said Ohio’s job-growth rate between April 2013 and April 2014 was 0.99 percent compared with the national rate of 1.64 percent. May represented the 19th consecutive month that Ohio lollygagged far behind the nation in job building. In the Valley, the jobless rate ranks in the highest third of the state’s 88 counties and third highest among Ohio’s 10 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas.
OPTIMISM AND HOPE
Despite the overall gloom of that reality check, the employment reports do offer a glimmer of optimism and hope. For example, between May 2013 and May 2014, Ohio added 46,800 jobs, 27,000 of which came from goods-producing and manufacturing industries, according to the ODJFS. The challenge therefore confronting Ohio and Greater Youngstown is to invest all energy and resources toward building upon that momentum.
Economic-development agencies, educational institutions and public-private partnerships must pull out all the stops toward attracting and retaining good-paying jobs, expanding the labor base and reducing the unemployment rate through job expansion — not through labor-market contraction.
Job-luring organizations such as the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber should double up on aggressively courting potential businesses. Eastern Gateway Community College should act to make its manufacturing college here a reality, and high schools and universities should work to match curriculum with demonstrated career needs. All levels of government should promote the same successful public-private partnerships that have lured such job catalysts as Vallourec, General Motors and Penn National Gaming to set up shop or massively expand their investments in our community.