09/22/08 — Wayne County unemployment rate rises to 6.9 percent

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Wayne County unemployment rate rises to 6.9 percent

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 22, 2008 1:42 PM

At last Tuesday's political forum sponsored by the Grantham Grange, moderator Dr. John Tart asked the four candidates for county commission who were on stage to answer what Wayne County's unemployment rate was. And each of the four got it wrong.

Beginning with Hal Keck, Republican candidate for the at-large commission seat, each stood before the microphone and agreed it was probably somewhere around 5 percent.

"I did not know," Keck admitted. "The last I had heard it was 5.1 or 5.2 percent.

"And I don't think anybody else knew, so I think they just copied me."

In fact, in July -- the last month numbers are available for -- the rate actually stood at 6.9 percent, its highest point in more than 15 years.

"When we're at 5 percent, that's what is considered full employment," said Bill Pate, manager of the Goldsboro branch of the North Carolina Employment Security Office. "When you get up to 6.9 percent, that's getting pretty serious."

At 6.9 percent, he explained, there are "qualified people in the community who are looking for work."

He did note, however, that for years the rate has indeed been right around 5 percent -- that the previous high had been 8.7 percent in 1991. Since then, the second highest has been 6.5 percent in 1993, and 6.1 percent in June 2003 -- the last time it was above 6 percent.

Even after Sept. 11, 2001, he noted, the rate stayed under 5.5 percent.

But this year, the number of people in Wayne County looking for jobs has begun to creep up again from 4.9 percent in March, to 5 percent in April, to 5.6 percent in May, to 6 percent in June, to 6.9 percent in July.

"It's pretty soft right now," Pate said. "It's been a while since we've seen these kinds of rates. Our economy's held up well -- a lot of it because of the diversification of our economy -- but we can't hold out forever.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the next one (due out Friday) is higher than that."

Especially, he added, with the recent closing of Hilex Poly in Mount Olive and laying off about 170 employees.

But the change in information didn't change the candidates' minds about what needs to be done to improve Wayne County's economy. If anything, they said, it only reinforces it.

"Certainly it's a concern. Anytime the unemployment rate goes up, it's a concern," Republican District 4 candidate Steve Keen said.

And some candidates, like Keck in particular, noted the need to lower the county's tax rate.

The others, like Keen, touched on the need for better land-use planning and water, sewer, electricity and transportation infrastructure.

And all of them, especially Democrats Sandra McCullen, for the at-large seat -- who is campaigning primarily to bring Wayne County schools into the 21st century -- and Denny Tart, for District 4, pointed toward education and improving the county's work force as the key.

"Every county competes with taxes and incentives, but what really matters is the kind of employees we've got," Tart said.