Chamber boss notes gains in Fort Smith metro manufacturing jobs, says more coming

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,849 views 

Mars Petcare is one of the manufacturers that have recently expanded in Fort Smith.

A continuing rebound in manufacturing and tourism jobs helped push Fort Smith metro jobs up 2.5% in June, with the region’s June jobless rate of 3.8% well below the 4.8% in June 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The metro jobless rate was up from 3.1% in May thanks in part to a 1.2% gain in the labor force and a 2.3% gain in the number of unemployed in the metro.

The Fort Smith metro, Arkansas’ third largest metro, had an estimated 114,485 jobs in June, up 2,816 jobs from 111,669 in June 2021, and above the 113,932 in May. Regional employment remains well below the peak of 124,098 in June 2006, but has recovered above the pre-pandemic level of 112,650 in March 2020.

Metro labor force numbers show 118,965 available workers in June, up from the 117,255 in June 2021, and above the 117,579 in July. It’s the first time the labor force has been above 118,000 since August 2020. The number of unemployed in June was an estimated 4,480, below the 5,586 in June 2021, but above the 3,647 in May.

Manufacturing jobs were an estimated 18,400 in June, up from 18,200 in May, and up 1,500 jobs from the 16,900 in June 2021. The June jobs number is the highest since December 2014, and the monthly average through June is 18,016, above the 17,200 monthly average in 2021 and well above the 16,800 in 2020. If the trend continues, the monthly average in 2022 could be at or above 18,000 for the first time since 2016.

Manufacturing jobs reached a high of 31,200 jobs in June 1999, a loss of 12,800 jobs, or 41%, compared with the June level. Fort Smith area manufacturing jobs began to decline in the 2000s as corporate America began to chase lower wages and easier regulations in China, Mexico, Vietnam and other countries.

Benton Harbor-Mich.-based Whirlpool closed its large Fort Smith refrigeration plant in June 2012. At the time, the plant employed about 1,000 but the facility was home to more than 4,500 jobs at peak production.

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it has taken several years to “stabilize the patient,” but the manufacturing sector is regaining its footing.

“It took us seven or eight years to get to the (job) lows after they (Whirlpool) and a lot of those vendors closed. And so it has, I think, taken us a while to come out of that, but all the projects that we’ve been putting together for the past decade, we’re starting to see some gains from that,” Allen said.

He said the chamber is working with others in the region and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to recruit new manufacturing operations and support expansion efforts of those in the area.

“In the next few weeks and months, we should announce at least two sizable expansions of manufacturing companies,” Allen said. “So we have some momentum, but we can’t take our foot off the gas. We have to go, go, go.”

He also said the region’s manufacturers are beginning to “outpace the pipeline of workers, which is the exact opposite problem we had a few years ago.”

Also on the rebound is the metro tourism sector. Tourism jobs – the leisure and hospitality sector – totaled 10,100 in June, above the 9,800 May and above the 9,900 in June 2021. June’s job level tied a record for the sector first recorded in June 2016. The sector has continued to recover since falling to 6,300 jobs in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began to shutdown the U.S. and state economies.

Jobs in the Trade, Transportation and Utilities sector, the region’s largest job sector, had an estimated 23,900 jobs, unchanged from May, and up from 23,300 in June 2021. The sector is off the peak of 24,700 in June 2007.

Metro government jobs totaled 17,300 in June, down from 18,000 in May and up from 17,200 in June 2021. The sector first set an employment record of 18,900 in May 2017.

Education and Health Services jobs were an estimated 16,600 in June, unchanged from May, and down from the 17,000 in June 2021. The sector had record employment of 17,600 in November 2019.

The Professional and Business Services sector posted 11,700 jobs in June, unchanged from May and above the 11,500 in June 2021. The sector hit an employment record of 13,600 in April 2018.

Annual average employment per month showed signs of growth in 2016, but declined in the following three years. Following are the past seven years of annual average employment per month in the region.
2021: 111,299
2020: 110,694
2019: 114,796
2018: 114,689
2017: 114,958
2016: 115,688
2015: 114,810
2014: 113,464
2013: 112,881
2012: 114,468

The record for average annual employment per month in the Fort Smith metro was 121,995 in 2007.

Following are the jobless rates among the four counties in the Fort Smith metro.
Crawford County
June 2022: 6.3%
June 2021: 3.6%

LeFlore County
June 2022: 6.5%
June 2021: 4.6%

Sebastian County
June 2022: 6.9%
June 2021: 3.4%

Sequoyah County
June 2022: 6%
June 2021: 4.1%