Janesville’s unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level on record, dipping to 2.7 percent in December, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics data.
In a news release Wednesday, the state Department of Workforce Development trumpeted Janesville and Rock County’s unemployment rate as being “a new low for any month on current record.” Janesville’s unemployment rate dipped from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent between November and December 2017.
The overall unemployment rate for Rock County hovered around 3 percent for much of the last year—a number not seen since the late 1990s—but the jobless rate slid to 2.8 percent in December, which is a record for the county, the agency said.
The Rock County and Janesville jobless rates are “preliminary” and not seasonally adjusted, the agency said, but the drop in those rates occurred alongside a state unemployment rate of around 3 percent to close out 2017.
That’s a record, the agency said. Overall, Wisconsin recorded the fifth-best decline in unemployment and the fifth-highest labor force participation rate in the country at 68.9 percent, the agency said.
The Department of Workforce Development said it uses data that have been collected on unemployment rates since 1990. Since then, unemployment rates in Janesville have never been as low as they were last year, the agency said.
Locally, it’s a sign the economy has made a dramatic recovery since the Great Recession, which included the 2009 idling of the General Motors plant.
In the fourth quarter of 2010, for instance, unemployment was 9.9 percent in Janesville, among the highest rates in the state, according to federal data.
Russ Kashian, an economist at UW-Whitewater, said the news of record low unemployment in Rock County is “wonderful,” a stark difference from nearly a decade ago.
Kashian remembers how some people were ringing the “death toll” for Rock County.
“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” he said. “This is a totally different conversation with the Janesville area than the conversations you had 10 years ago.”
But along with economic improvement and historic low unemployment has come a shrinking local labor pool. That’s a reality many local economic development and jobs officials have said is putting a strain on employers, who are trying to find workers with the skills they need.
Kashian said a labor shortage is a smaller problem than a rampant job shortage, but it’s a concern in Rock County.
“The labor supply is constricted, and employers are having trouble with that,” he said. “There’s little opportunity for the industries to find a reasonably deep pool of workers.”
The unemployment rate hovers around 2 percent in Dane County, an area that typically has lower unemployment than the rest of the state. It’s historically unusual for Janesville’s rate to nearly mirror Dane County’s.
It might be a good problem to have, Kashian said, but over the short haul, a tight labor market could keep some companies from aggressively expanding or even give new companies pause about locating in the region.
Kashian said some existing industries could turn to “innovations” that make them less reliant on beefing up employee headcounts. But he said it is becoming crucial for companies and officials to find ways to grow a local workforce from within and from without.
“The only way you’re going to grow now is to retain the people you have or to attract people to relocate to Rock County,” he said.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation earlier this month launched a talent recruitment ad campaign that will target UW System graduates who’ve gone to other states to work, as well as military veterans.
Initially, the state’s economic development group said it will use the ad campaign to try to woo young workers from the Chicago area to Wisconsin.
That could help Rock County at a time when job seekers are scarce.
The New York Times reported this month that in Dane County, Stoughton Trailers is hiring more workers through the state prison system’s work-release program to fill ranks in production that otherwise would go unfilled.
Tristan Cook, a state Department of Corrections official, told The Gazette last week he was unaware of any major Rock County employers making the same use of the state prison’s work-release program.
One local employer, metal manufacturer United Alloy, said last week that demand for its products is booming. The company is expanding its plant this year, and it anticipates adding at least 50 more employees to the 190 it already employs, including production workers and engineers.
The company told The Gazette it has had to lean harder on temporary hires through local staffing agencies to fill its ranks. It has even recruited workers during happy hours at local taverns, among other methods, offering second- and third-shift premium pay as high as $21 to $23 an hour for entry-level jobs.
That kind of pay competes directly with Dane County employers, such as the Sub-Zero refrigeration plant in Fitchburg, which local Facebook jobs postings and newspaper advertisements showed was actively hiring assemblers and offering entry-level pay of $19 to $20 per hour.