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Data released today by the state’s unemployment agency confirmed that January was a tough month for the state’s workforce, with rates rising in all but one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

In Western North Carolina, the numbers painted a similar picture. Graham and Swain counties ranked first and second among the highest unemployment rates in the state, at 19.4 and 18.3 percent, respectively. Rutherford, Cherokee and Yancey counties were also among the worst county rates in the state; all were well above the 10.5 percent average for the state as a whole.

Graphic by Carolina Public Press

Pam Dickey, manager of the Employment Security Commission of N.C. offices in Graham, Cherokee and Clay counties, said the numbers reflected several conditions for workers in North Carolina’s westernmost counties: a typical winter-month slow-down in retail and tourism jobs and the still-lasting impact of the decline in the area’s home-building industry and related recession.

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“That area (Graham County) in particular is a more isolated part of the state, and a lot of folks that are from Graham County typically have a history of working in the construction or construction trade business,” Dickey said from her office in Murphy.

“There were a lot of businesses that relied on the construction industry, and when the building and selling of homes decreased dramatically, it had an affect on the area,” she said. Businesses offering everything from well drilling to appliance sales suffered, as did employees.

In the quarter ending Sept. 30, the most recent data available, there were 204 businesses in Graham County, according to the “Workforce In-Depth” report issued on the county, on March 18, by the Employment Security Commission. [PDF] Forty-six of those were in construction. That doesn’t account, she said, for those whose construction-related jobs were headquartered in east Tennessee or in neighboring counties.

Overall, she added, the numbers reveal that the recession’s problems have persisted. “We’re just having a slower time in recovery than some of the larger cities,” she said.

Today, Graham County workers who spent years working in construction and the related trades are faced with finding work in other sectors, she said. With only one major plant in the Graham County, “job opportunities are very limited,” she said.

But today’s data also showed that while unemployment rose across the region in January, not all mountain counties topped the state overall.

Three counties – Buncombe, Henderson and Polk – posted unemployment rates below the state average of 10.5 percent, with Buncombe County’s rate, at 8.4 percent, being among the best eight counties in the state for the month.

In the Asheville metropolitan statistical area, the rate increase 1 percentage point from December to January, from 7.9 percent to 8.9 percent.

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Rick Elingburg, manager of the Buncombe County Employment Security Commission office said the increase was due to expected seasonal layoffs in hospitality, retail and construction businesses.

But local workers benefit generally, he said, by having diverse types of employers in the area. And even though unemployment increased, new opportunities are developing for workers here and within commuting distance.

“We have quite a few medium and large manufacturing companies in our area that are actually adding jobs,” he said. Those places include Continental Automotive Systems, Eaton Corporation, Mills Manufacturing and GE Aviation Systems Components.

These jobs are available to people able to commute to the area, too, he said, adding, “We feel good about that.”

Angie Newsome

Angie Newsome is the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at anewsome@carolinapublicpress.org.

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