By Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD – The U.S. Department of labor announced last week that the country has reached its lowest level of unemployment since the early days of the Great Recession in April of 2008.
The U.S. unemployment rate hit 5.5 percent as the 12 month streak of at least 200,000 new jobs continued, the longest such span in nearly 20 years according to Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez.
“The economic winds remained at our back February with the addition of 295,000 new jobs,” said Perez.
“And for five years now – 60 uninterrupted months – private sector employment growth has continued unabated to the tune of more than 12 million jobs overall.”
However job growth remains stagnant in Illinois as more and more people exit the workforce. Statewide saw a decrease of 7,000 jobs while the unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent for the month of January.
According to the Illinois Policy Institute, the state is still 94,600 jobs behind from the beginning of the Great Recession.
Locally the same trends prevail. While 3,227 jobs were added in the Rockford area during 2014 more than 6,300 people exited the workforce for a multitude of reasons.
“I think it’s a factor of people choosing not to look for work and a large number of people entering retirement,” said Rockford City Administrator Jim Ryan.
“Our labor force is around 159,429 people but that labor force is back down to 1990 levels.”
Massive improvements in the local unemployment rate were offset by a shrinking labor force, said Ryan.
“In you look at the end of the year date for 2014 our metro unemployment dropped from 12.4 percent to 7.5 which was the third largest decrease in the state,” Ryan said.
“That’s good news but we still have one of the highest unemployment rates in Illinois.”
Ryan said the labor force peaked in 2010 when the area saw over 170,000 employed, but the slow bleed from the labor force has strapped economic growth in the area.
One side effect of the shrinking job pool has been a spike in the number of people relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“One-in-five people in Winnebago and Boone Counties are on SNAP,” said Ryan. “That means a total of 70,813 people were on the program in February.”
Locally, 20.5 percent of residents are currently receiving SNAP assistance against 15 percent statewide.
Ryan said he felt that the area has the resources needed to improve its economic state, but that more attention needs to be paid to their implementation.
“I think on the development side we have quite a few tools,” he said. “One of the issues that plagues our community is the lack of a skilled workforce. That’s where we need more efforts and creative funding to develop job skills.”
Ryan says that improvements to transitioning students from high school to college and the work force will pay dividends but local business need to engage more proactively to improve the situation.
“Our high schools moving to the academy model will help build partnerships with the private sector,” he continued, “but most of our funds are coming from state and federal sources.
“We need a more diversified funding stream to push on.”