Although the number of unemployed in the Fort Smith metro fell almost 12% in December compared to December 2017, the region’s labor force and number of employed continued a decline that began in late 2008.
The Fort Smith metro jobless rate rose to 3.7% in December from 3.4% in November, but was well below the 4.2% in December 2017, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor figures. The recent federal numbers are preliminary and subject to change.
Regional employment totaled 112,121 in December, down 0.9% from the 113,141 in December 2017 and down from 113,244 in November. The December employment is down 13,305 jobs from peak employment of 125,426 in June 2006, a drop of 10.6%.
The annual average employment per month showed signs of growth in 2016, but dipped in 2017. Following are the past five years of annual average employment per month in the region. (Because December numbers are preliminary, the 2018 average has not been published.)
The record for average annual employment per month in the Fort Smith metro was 123,256 in 2007.
The metro eligible labor force was 116,445 in December, down from 117,270 in November and down 1.35% from the 118,045 in December 2017. The number of metro unemployed was 4,324 in December, up compared to the 3,976 in October, but below the 4,904 in December 2017.
Jobs in the Trade, Transportation and Utilities sector, the region’s largest job sector, had an estimated 22,800 jobs, unchanged compared to November, but down from 23,000 in December 2017. The sector is off the peak of 24,700 in December 2007.
Manufacturing jobs were an estimated 17,700 in December, unchanged compared to November, and up from 17,400 in December 2017. The sector has not replaced the jobs lost from the closure of Whirlpool Corp., Trane and other manufacturing operations that have closed in recent years. Manufacturing jobs reached a high of 31,200 jobs in June 1999, a loss of 13,500 jobs, or 43.2%.
Education and Health Services jobs were 16,600 in December, also unchanged compared to November, but down from 16,800 in December 2017. Tourism jobs – the leisure and hospitality sector – totaled 9,300 in December, down from 9,400 in November but just ahead of the estimated 9,100 in December 2017. Regional tourism employment hit a high of 10,100 in June 2016.
Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tim Allen said one factor keeping job numbers low is gains in productivity.
“There’s little doubt that the workforce landscape has changed in Fort Smith since 2006. Advanced manufacturing, healthcare and information technology jobs have replaced the traditional production positions that left communities like Fort Smith in the last decade. Today, we know that companies are producing more products with fewer people,” Allen wrote in a note to Talk Business & Politics.
In addition to efforts to recruit and retain jobs, Allen said the chamber also works with partners to boost workforce skills.
“Working with our education and business partners, the long-term focus has shifted to rebuilding the workforce environment to equip workers to move into the jobs that are open in those fields. There are 1,000+ openings for skilled workers in the area at any given time and we routinely hear from companies seeking trained employees. Efforts like the recently announced Fort Smith Public Schools Career & Technology Center and expanded programs at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith are all setting the stage for workers to fast track their education and fill the jobs that are needed.”