Kent County employment lags behind state

DOVER — Delaware’s unemployment rate remains slightly better than the national average and wages are increasing, the state reported Friday in its monthly labor summary.

However, Kent County continues to struggle compared to the rest of the state.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose from 4.8 percent in August to 4.9 percent last month.

The most recent figure nonetheless represents a tangible improvement on where Delaware was a year ago. The state posted a 5.5 percent rate in September 2014.

Out of 464,100 people defined as the state labor force, 22,900 are not employed. Nationally, 5.1 percent of people 17dsn labor report breakoutwho are looking for jobs are out of work.

“It shows that Delaware’s economy is still growing but seems to have slowed down a little bit toward more of a long-term rate,” George Sharpley, chief of the state Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information, said of the report.

Looking at local unemployment rates, New Castle County is at 4.9 percent and Sussex County is at 4.4 percent, but the state’s middle borough continues to lag behind. Kent posted an unemployment figure of 5.4 percent last month, driven by 6.6 percent unemployment in Dover.

Those figures represent an improvement of more than 0.5 percent from August.

County employment strength is cyclical, Dr. Sharpley said. While only time will tell when Kent’s economy sees a boost, he expects it to occur at some point.

Kent’s population being a good deal smaller than New Castle’s plays a large role in its struggles.

“That’s the problem with the small economy,” Dr. Sharpley said. “Just a couple of changes here or there can make big differences.”

The state government has cut about 1,100 positions since early 2009. That particularly impacts Dover, the state capital, Mr. Sharpley said.

As an example of the size factor coming into play, he cited Dover Air Force Base embarking on a hypothetical expansion project. Such an effort would create new jobs and cause a drop in Kent’s unemployment.

Despite reports from federal Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys indicating wages had taken a slight dip, payroll data shows a different trend. According to the Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information, pay is up 2.9 percent in the past two years.

While the United States has seen a gradual decline in unemployment over the preceding 12 months, Delaware has experienced a different picture. From September of last year to April, the state’s unemployment rate fell from 5.5 to 4.5 percent.

Since then, however, it’s gone up or stayed the same in every month and now is close to the national average.

Nonetheless, Dr. Sharpley does not see that as a cause for concern, believing the overall economy is approaching the “new normal.” He expects unemployment in Delaware to settle around 4.5 percent, rather than the 3.5 percent it was before the recession.

That does not represent a possible downturn, simply the reality of a changed economy, he said. With the recession now several years in the past, large gains are typically harder to come by.

“Most low-hanging fruit — the easy gains — are gone,” he said.

The higher unemployment rate of the past few months could also be “revised away” when the federal government makes its adjustments based on more data, Dr. Sharpley added.

The monthly state labor report comes from a survey, and the end of every year the government is able to use payroll data for the year to make adjustments. In each of the past two years, summer unemployment rate increases have been wiped away by end-of-year adjustments.

In the past 12 months, the leisure and hospitality field has seen an increase in workers (2,600 jobs), although retail and wholesale trade jobs have fallen by about 2,000.

Other areas are somewhere between the two totals.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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