FRIDAY, January 9, 2009 - Uneasiness. Uncertainty. Fear. You've probably heard all of them used recently to describe the edgy feeling among business leaders - and, for that matter, just about everyone else.
The new year always brings hope. It's a fresh start, and that can infuse life with a sense of optimism and new possibilities. On the other hand, unemployment rates have been rising and bad news keeps emerging from a battered financial sector, with just about everyone, it seems, lining up to grab government cash under the guise of "bailouts."
No matter what the pundits say, nobody can predict what's on the horizon, particularly with a new presidential administration on the way and volatility in world affairs. But it's a good time to get a "reality check" on where things truly stand.
Life may not have been as bad as it seemed last month, when Bob Heuts and Charles Hayes delivered their annual "The Health of Lee County" assessment one month ago. As always, the economic developers - Heuts from Lee County and Hayes from the Research Triangle Region - poked and prodded the most-recent data and gave their sixth-annual assessment.
What they unveiled to about 160 community leaders at the group's largest gathering ever was plenty of good news to go along with the ominous economy. And though the economy continues to struggle, things still were not as bad as they've been in decades past.
Though near-apocalyptic reports were swirling, the national unemployment rate stood at 6.5 percent in October, the latest report available at the time - far from an ideal number, but still not the 10.8 percent tallied in late '82.
And the national Misery Index - a statistic combining the unemployment and inflation rates, made popular during the Carter years - was 10.16 percent. Just half of the 21.98 registered at its peak in June 1980.
Since then, it's actually dropped. National unemployment rose 0.2 percent in November, though inflation fell, easing some pressure on consumers. The current national Misery Index is just 7.77 percent.
(Note: Moments before this Update 100 was released, the national unemployment rate for December was announced as 7.2 percent. Assuming the inflation rate is unchanged, the new Misery Index would stand at 8.27 percent.)
That may not ease concern locally, where the Lee County unemployment rate jumped from 8.2 percent in October to 9.8 percent in November - though 17 counties now have figures in double digits, topped by Edgecombe County at 13.3.
But the tumbling Misery Index does provide some much-needed perspective on our economy. And, it remains to be seen how long Lee's unexpectedly-high local rate will continue into the new year.
Despite all of the understandable concern, there was plenty of good economic news last year that should provide some optimism for the coming months.
* Sanford rose to 34th in economic strength among small cities in the United States, continuing its steady assent on the annual ranking published by POLICOM.
* Red Wolf received a $75,000 expansion loan to pay for capital costs that could add several jobs to the new company.
* Stock Building Supply purchased the Redman Building to serve as a new facility for manufacturing and production.
* Moen announced plans to move jobs from Ohio to Sanford, further strengthening our reputation as a strong location for manufacturing.
In fact, Lee County continued to buck the national manufacturing trends, keeping a strong base in the sector. Manufacturing still employs 37 percent of the local workforce, a number far larger than 13 percent across the state and 10 percent in our region.
That's important, since local manufacturing jobs pay $44,970 per year on average - far better than the $23,192 per year for retail jobs in another significant sector that employs 10 percent of local workers.
Some have taken issue with the assessment that the local labor market is "good" overall, given the fact that jobs have been cut at Wyeth and other large manufacturing operations.
That's a valid point, though most of the cuts in manufacturing appear to be the result of universal economic woes, not local weakness in the sector.
An example? If all businesses cut their workforces by 10 percent, that change may to be hard to detect in economies dominated by scores of 10-employee retail operations, laying off one person each. But when 100 people lose their jobs in a company employing 1,000 people, it quickly becomes front-page news.
And, if manufacturers were leaving Lee County for other locales, or if the proportion of manufacturing jobs were dropping significantly, that would raise red flags. But since that's not happening - yet, at least - the labor market, which is always judged relative to others, remains "good."
Some Quick Highlights from "The Health of Lee"
One legitimate concern about the labor scene is what statisticians call "educational attainment," or the highest level of education achieved. When figures showing 51.5 percent of Lee Countians having a high school education or less popped up during the "Health of Lee" presentation, Hayes said, simply, "This slide always concerns me."
For the record, 20.2 percent had less than a high school education; 31.3 percent, high school; 18.9 percent, some college; 11.0 percent, an associate degree; and 18.6 percent a bachelor's degree or higher. That's a real problem in an increasingly-complex work environment, where people are expected move from one job to another, learn on their own and grasp technical material.
The crime rate, which stunned the community in 2002, when it reached 7,201 per 100,000 inhabitants, continues to fall. The latest figure, 4,087, has plunged 43 percent in six years and is well below the statewide average of 4,659 (which actually rose last year).
About 85 percent of Lee County schools achieved "expected" or "high" growth, exceeding the statewide average of 82 percent, and the schools' dropout rate of 5.83 percent was its lowest in nine years.
Also on the education front, Central Carolina Community Colleges was just one of 12 statewide (among 58) that met or exceeded the performance measures used to assess quality and client satisfaction.
An executive summary and copies of the presentation slides are available as PDF downloads from Lee County Economic Development at lcedc.com/media/.