Darren Lamb

Franklin County’s unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in almost five years in August, but that does not mean the area has fully recovered from the recession, officials say.

The unemployment rate for August was 6.7 percent, which is the lowest it has been since September 2008 when it was at 6.4 percent.

“It is significant in the fact that it is that low,” said Darren Lamb, city of Washington community and economic development director.

‘Tempered Optimism’

While the drop in unemployment is good news, it is only one barometer to gauge the local economy. Other factors such as median income, the number of part-time jobs and how many workers have been forced to take jobs they are overqualified for, also factor into the equation, Lamb said.

Moreover, the unemployment rate may also be down because some people are no longer being counted, said Gretchen Pettet, executive director of Workforce Development at East Central College.

She noted that some unemployed people have exhausted their benefits, and therefore are no longer included in the jobless statistics.

Still, Pettet said she thinks the drop in the unemployment rate is a sign that the county’s economy is improving, and she described it as “tempered optimism.”

“I think those numbers are great, and I do think it’s a positive trend,” Pettet added.

Hopefully, Lamb said, the unemployment rate will stay low as the area heads into the winter months when construction work decreases.

Recent data from the Census Bureau show that median household income for the county dropped from $52,127 in 2008 to $42,214 in 2012. The county’s estimated poverty rate in 2012 was 16.2 percent compared to 8.5 percent in 2011.

Part-Time Work Rises

Part-time employment has risen in Missouri since the recession. In 2007, there was an average of 482,000 part-time employees in Missouri versus 549,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Full-time employment has dropped from an average 2,414,000 workers in 2007 to 2,255,000 workers in 2012.

Specific data for Franklin County were unavailable.

Pettet said she has heard anecdotally that more people are working part time compared to prior to the recession.

Job Training

The college has federal grant funds that allow people to take tuition-free classes in manufacturing and health care fields so they can gain new skills to start new careers, Pettet said. She encourages people to contact the college about the grant program, adding that enrollment for spring semester is under way now.

The college also offers the Certified Work Ready Communities Initiative. It is an assessment that people take to verify they have the job skills that local employers are looking for. The program is being launched across the county to ensure there is a “critical mass” of people with needed jobs skills.

‘Bounce Back’

A growing local retail sector with the new Phoenix Center II stores off of Highway 100 has probably helped the county’s employment situation as well, Lamb said. And with the holiday shopping season approaching, retail hiring could pick up more, he added.

Lamb said there has been some “bounce back” with the automotive industry following the closure of the Harman-Becker plant last year, which took about 300 jobs. Computech now occupies the former Harman-Becker building.

The aerospace industry, particularly Valent, in Washington is also helping the area’s employment picture, Lamb noted.

CG Power Systems, which manufactures transformers, has also done significant hiring, he said.

The conservative stance employers have taken the past several years has put them in a position where they can start hiring again, Pettet pointed out.

The health care field is growing as well, Lamb said, adding that Mercy is Washington’s largest employer.

Major industries in Washington have been doing “gradual” hiring over the past three to four years, he said. He is aware of two industries that are looking to expand here.

Tool and die shops in the area are “still pretty strong,” Lamb said.