The need for more jobs – especially better paying jobs - is the dominant issue in this year’s race for three Wilkes County commissioner seats, even though Wilkes had a 3.5% unemployment rate and only 1,029 people unemployed in the November (most recent) N.C. Department of Commerce report.

It reflects the fact that despite certain positive indicators in Wilkes and a booming economy in urban areas of North Carolina, many Wilkes Countians are experiencing something quite different.

Patrick McHugh, an analyst at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, noted that there is a disproportionally large number of jobs not paying a living wage plus jobs requiring high tech or other specialized skills compared to jobs that a large segment of the population qualifies for or finds desirable pay-wise. McHugh said this disconnect is especially pronounced in rural counties like Wilkes.

It helps explain why the NCWorks office in North Wilkesboro regularly has over 500 job openings in Wilkes.

Yet to be seen is the full impact of Lowe’s Companies Inc. moving 600 jobs to Mooresville and 80 to Winston-Salem by the end of 2019 and jobs being ended at the LP plant in Roaring River (the number hasn’t been told) in the coming year.

This past November’s jobless rate is the lowest in Wilkes since  a three-month period in 2018: 3.5% in November,  3.2% with 994 jobless in October and 2.8% with 866 people jobless in September. Those were the lowest rates in Wilkes since 1998-99, when it often was around 2% and the number of unemployed people typically was well below 1,000.

The difference between the size of Wilkes County’s labor force now and a year ago - and especially between now and 20 years ago, is also significant. The labor force is defined as those with a job plus the unemployed looking for work.

The state reported that Wilkes County’s labor force went from 30,401 people in July 2019 to 29,405 the next month, an unprecedented decrease of 996 people. Equally significant is that the county’s labor force has remained below 30,000 since then.

Prior to this past July, the Wilkes labor force hadn’t been below 30,000 since it was 29,472 in August 2016. It was between about 28,000 and 28,500 in most of 2014. About 20 years ago, the county’s labor force ranged from 33,500 to 34,500.

The jobless rate measures the number of people in the labor force without a job but actively looking. Those who drop out of the labor force by retiring or giving up finding a job help lower the jobless rate. The number of people who return to the labor force depends largely on the number of available jobs paying living wages.

A lower unemployment rate also doesn’t reflect people who returned to work but for less pay than they once made, people with more than one low-paying job, people working part-time and those having to commute long distances for work.

According to the Census Bureau, about 25 percent of Wilkes County’s labor force commuted to jobs outside Wilkes in 2016. That included 6,500 working in other North Carolina counties and 218 commuting to jobs in other states.

The number of baby boomers retiring by far exceeds the number reaching age 16 (working age) each day in rural counties like Wilkes with little in-migration and overall slow population growth.

It’s a sharp contrast to metro areas like Charlotte and Raleigh, which have among the fastest growing job markets in the nation.

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