Employment Up North: Where the Jobs Are

REGION – Without a doubt, the unemployment picture in northern Michigan has been dark in 2009. However, as glimmers of light are starting to show at the end of the low employment tunnel, some sectors are looking downright bright.

First the tough news: Unemployment in Grand Traverse County reached 13.8 percent in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor. Most neighboring counties fared even worse, with Kalkaska at 16.6 percent unemployment, Benzie at 17.8 percent, and Antrim at 18.1 percent. Translation? One in six employable people in these three counties is out of a job. Only Leelanau County is doing somewhat better at 11.6 percent.

Typical seasonal employment swings are likely to push these numbers higher, at least through April 2010. In each of the past 20 years, combined unemployment in the five counties of northwest lower Michigan has been higher in January, February and March than in December of the prior year.

However, there are some signs that the pendulum is about to swing the other way. As a state, Michigan may be leading other states back (slowly and painfully) from deep unemployment.

In December, Michigan was one of four U.S. states to record a decrease in unemployment. Michigan's unemployment rate fell from 14.7 percent in November to 14.6 percent in December on a seasonally-adjusted basis. Though a tiny change, the .1 percent decline represents the third consecutive month of declining unemployment from a seasonally adjusted high of 15.3 percent in September 2009.

Some sectors are bouncing back more quickly, or indeed, have been hiring right along:

In Grand Traverse County, two sectors have notably been adding jobs in the face of a stagnant economy. According to the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, employment in "educational services" rose 6.3 percent between 2008 and 2009, and "health care and social assistance" rose 3.5 percent in the same period. Data is compared for the second quarter of each year, the most recent information available.

Educational services as a sector includes both primary and secondary school systems (public, private and parochial), as well as colleges and universities. But that job growth has come at a price: While the number of people employed in this sector has increased, average wages have declined by $624 annually, to an average annual wage of $20,400 in 2009.

Health care and social assistance added 274 jobs in Grand Traverse County between 2008 and 2009, the largest number of net jobs of any sector. The February issue of the Traverse City Business News focused on the huge economic impact of Munson Healthcare alone, but this sector also contains physicians' offices, home health care providers, assisted living centers, child day care services, social services offices, and more – a total of 342 businesses in Grand Traverse County.

For the roughly 8,000 individuals employed in health care and social assistance in Grand Traverse County, average annual wages rose by $1,600 in health care and social services, bringing the average annual salary to $43,000 in 2009.

All other sectors have lost jobs between 2008 and 2009, though some, such as Information (which includes publishing, broadcast media, and film production, among others) have lost relatively few workers. Employment in Information fell by 1.7 percent from 2008 to 2009. Employment in administrative and waste services fell by 3.5 percent. Finance and insurance lost 4.4 percent of its jobs. Hardest hit of all have been the construction and manufacturing sectors, which have lost 576 and 1,055 jobs respectively.

The forecast: Brighter days are likely ahead for all of us. For some in the health care and social assistance sector, the sun will simply continue to shine. BN

Sherwood Smith is President of Avenue ISR, a management consulting and consumer research company based in Traverse City.