The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

November 22, 2012

Unemployment continues to drop

Southeast Iowa continues trend of higher unemployment than rest of state

OTTUMWA — Unemployment continues to decline and more are back to work, according to data released from Iowa Workforce Development this week.

But Kerry Koonce, communications director for Iowa Workforce Development, said unfortunately higher levels of unemployment in southeast Iowa seems to be a trend.

Statewide, unemployment dropped to 5.1 percent in October, down from 5.2 percent in September and 5.8 percent a year ago. That’s in contrast to nationwide unemployment, which rose to 7.9 percent in October from 7.8 percent in September, though it was lower than the 8.9 percent unemployment the U.S. saw a year ago.

Ottumwa and Wapello County followed the statewide trend, dropping to 7 percent and 6.6 percent unemployment in October, respectively, from 8.2 percent and 7.8 percent unemployment in September.

But Wapello County joins 19 other counties who sit above the statewide unemployment rate, eight of which are in southeast Iowa.

“It’s gone on for years in southeast Iowa,” Koonce said. “It’s a multitude of issues. For a long time the area was heavy, heavy manufacturing only, and when it lost that, it makes it hard for recovery.”

For example, the city of Fort Madison is suffering after it was announced in September that more than 400 of the 660 workers at Siemens would be laid off. When John Morrell and Co. shut down in Ottumwa in 1973, thousands lost their jobs.

“And it takes a long time to recover from something like that,” Koonce said. “Unfortunately it’s an area of the state that’s been hit with constant turmoil for years.”

Other southeast Iowa counties still above the statewide average are Appanoose County at 6.4 percent unemployment, Jefferson County at 5.7 percent, Van Buren County at 5.6 percent and Davis County at 5.5 percent.

The obvious answer to the problem is job growth, Koonce said, but that’s going to require making sure the work force has the skill set it needs.

“And diversifying the economy so it’s not all embedded in one industry, so that when there’s a recession, the effects are spread out more evenly,” Koonce said.

David Humburg, business and community liaison at the Ottumwa Job Corps Center, agreed.

“From my limited experience I believe one of the factors for a higher local unemployment rate is the ‘skills gap,’” Humburg said. “There is a shortage of qualified skilled workers within the pool of unemployed workers. I frequently speak to employers in the area who are eager to interview and hire hands-on, technically skilled graduates from Job Corps and Indian Hills Community College.”

But just because southeast Iowa is faring worse than other areas of the state doesn’t mean there haven’t been improvements.

The unemployment rate has been steadily, though slowly, declining in recent months.

“There has been job growth across a variety of industries and a decrease in unemployment claims being filed,” Koonce said of the southeast Iowa region.

The overall labor force consists of those who are employed and those who are unemployed but who are looking for work, she said.

“Statewide we have about 84,000 people who are unemployed, but only 58,000 are receiving unemployment benefits,” she said. “The others might have lost their job and are not qualified for unemployment or they were fired for a reason that didn’t make them qualified.”

Koonce also hopes the weather stays nice through the winter as it did last year, which helped construction — and construction jobs — stay strong.

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