Job numbers improve, worse than state, country

Published 12:03 am Sunday, October 1, 2017

NATCHEZ — The latest Mississippi jobs numbers show continued improvement in Adams County’s unemployment rate, though the head of Natchez Inc. said the figures still leave much to be desired.

The Mississippi Labor Market Data report for August lists the county’s unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, down from 8.4 percent a year ago.

Aside from 2016, the county’s rate has declined each year over the past five years, dropping from 10.5 percent in 2012 to its current 7.6-percent rate. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security includes persons 16 years of age and older in its labor data.

Email newsletter signup

Compared to some of its neighbors, Adams County’s unemployment rate might not look bad. Wilkinson County has a 9.6-percent rate, but even that pales in comparison to Jefferson County’s staggering, state-worst 14.9-percent jobless rate, nearly 5 percent above the second-most-job-depraved county.

Rankin and Union counties each have the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 3.5 percent.

Worth noting is the size of Wilkinson and Jefferson counties’ labor force sizes, which are approximately one-fourth and one-fifth, respectively, the size of Adams County’s labor force (listed as 11,090 in the report).

But by looking past that context, observers will see Adams County ranks 69th out of 82 counties in terms of unemployment.

The county’s five-year trend, while an improvement, does not indicate a quicker decline than anywhere else in the state. Mississippi’s unadjusted unemployment rate as a whole dropped from 9 percent in 2012 to 5.1 percent to date, a full percentage point more than Adams County during that span.

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said while Adams County remains a hub for surrounding counties and unemployment numbers should, in turn, continue to improve, he still believes far more work is in store.

“We’ve had a decline in unemployment over that 5-, 6-year period … but it’s still below the state and national average,” Russ said. “We’re not going to be satisfied until we reach a parity with some of these other counties that are either on par or below the state average. That’s our goal as a region … to put people to work.”

Russ indicated two main factors that continue to affect these numbers, and they go hand-in-hand.

First, Russ notes the population loss that has plagued the county over the past several years. But Russ said that issue expands far past the borders of Adams County or even Southwest Mississippi.

“I don’t know of a single rural county (in Mississippi) that’s maintaining or not having a negative population growth,” Russ said.

Tying into that point is that these rural areas have struggled due to a reduced manufacturing presence, Russ said.

“The only way to stop population loss is additional jobs … Manufacturing and business development into rural areas of the state have to be better,” Russ said.

Russ did say the area has done better in that regard over the years, noting Great River Industries’ announcement of adding 100 jobs to its current 180 as well as Delta Energy’s continued development.

But the second reason he sees this area, and rural areas in general, struggling is the departure of oil and gas.

“A depressed oil and gas exploration and service industry … is a huge part of our regional economy and also in population decline,” Russ said.

Russ said the oil and gas sector is likely a primary reason the county’s unemployment numbers are higher than the state average.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus agreed that a return of industrial jobs is essential to repopulate the area.

“It’s going to be the price of oil going back down … and the industry (returning),” Lazarus said. “I mean, we need some real jobs. People are finding employment, but it’s not the kind of employment we need.”

Lazarus said the county needs more legitimate jobs with health benefits.

He also agreed with Russ that the problems affecting the county are not isolated.

“It’s all over the state. That’s why revenues for the state of Mississippi have been down, because we lost a lot of manufacturing jobs and the economy just hasn’t been growing.”

Lazarus said Natchez fulfills many qualifications on the hypothetical checklist of what a city needs to thrive, including available land, port, rail and community colleges.

“We hit the mark on a lot of the list,” Lazarus said. “Public schools, maybe we could use some help in that portion of it, but the workforce — we’re a Work Ready (Community).”

The American Council on Testing’s Work Ready Community program helps both employees and employers in the process of aiding economic development. Adams County became Mississippi’s first WRC-certified county in September 2016.

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said the loss of job-providers such as the International Paper mill and Armstrong Tire and Rubber caused a negative domino effect in the community.

“What happened in Natchez-Adams County … you had all these industrial endeavors in the community and it’s just shut down,” Grennell said. “That’s what I’ve been working on is trying to get industrial growth for the community.”

Grennell said in August when he heard Toyota and Mazda were coming to Mississippi, he immediately called Gov. Phil Bryant.

“I told the governor we’ve got to get the scouts down here … so we can sell Natchez,” Grennell said.

Grennell said though economic development has been “a struggle” and no major industrial endeavors have panned out, he remains positive looked ahead.

“I’m extremely optimistic for Natchez-Adams County,” he said. “One of the things we have is the river. That river is a gateway to future industrial growth.

“We still have a rail coming into Natchez-Adams County, and that’s important because it opens the door for future industrial growth.”

Grennell also said one of the area’s greatest assets is its people, and he believes if industry returned to the region, so would Adams County natives.

“There are a lot of people that want to come back home,” Grennell said. “If there were industrial jobs, you would have a lot of people coming back to Natchez.”