Rim Country Residents Struggle To Find Work

Jobless workers gamble on retraining and education in struggle to cope with region’s high unemployment

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He lost his construction job in Payson when the housing market collapsed — so he got a trucking license and now he’s driving a semi in Alaska, waiting for the turnaround so he can come home.

All she wanted was to find a way to stay in Rim Country — so she finished her training as a medical assistant after absorbing the predictions that the health care sector is one of the few areas weathering the recession. But she couldn’t find anything in town and now she’s working out of state.

She lost her office job as the economy swooned, went back to school, got a nursing degree — and has a good job in town now.

Dave Franquero, who runs a local state Department of Economic Security program to help laid-off workers retool, keeps track of those clients — and a host of other Rim Country residents struggling mightily to survive the downturn and remain in the place they love.

“I’ve never seen this area hit as hard as it is now,” said Franquero sadly. “It’s just tough. People are leaving the area because there just aren’t any jobs.”

Gila County suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate, although figures suggest the rate remains closer to 8 percent in northern Gila County. That number includes only people without full-time work looking actively for a new job. It doesn’t include the many people who have settled for part-time work or much lower-paying jobs. It also doesn’t include people who have given up looking altogether.

Franquero hopes to give many of those people new options, with the help of money that will pay for schooling, certification, specialized training and sometimes initially offset salaries paid by employers to newly hired workers that were collecting unemployment.

Sometimes, the extra training proves a lifeline.

One Payson resident with teaching experience was commuting to the Valley to pick up substitute work, while he desperately sought work that would keep him in Rim Country, recalled Franquero. The program connected him to a local employer and offset his salary for a period of time with payments from the state, while he gained training.

Other times, the payoff remains elusive.

One laid-off Payson worker completed training in fiber optics, hoping to get a job installing the new high-speed communications systems — a seeming, sure-fire growth area. But even with the training, he couldn’t find any work in Rim Country — and is now nearing the end of his extended unemployment benefits.

The stories are often heartbreaking — and the desperation of people to find work unnerving, said Franquero.

“I’ve got people who have lived here for 30 years and have never been out of work a single day — and they can’t find anything. They’ve lost their vehicles and they’ve lost their homes. It’s just not a good environment.”

In July, the statewide unemployment rate stood at 9.6, frozen at that rate for months.

Rural areas like Gila County have suffered far more in the two-year downturn than urban areas, like Maricopa County — which accounts for the steady migration of jobs to the big cities in the past 30 years. For instance, in 1980 rural areas accounted for 15 percent of the jobs in the state. In 2009, rural areas had just 10 percent of the jobs.

As a result, the poverty rate in the state’s rural areas stands at about 21 percent, compared to 14 percent in urban areas, according to U.S. Census figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The emphasis on training offered by programs like the one Franquero oversees also focuses on the debilitating education gap that separates urban and rural areas —despite the dramatic overall gains in the past past 40 years.

Back in 1970, only 13 percent of the state’s workers had completed college — including just 6 percent of workers in Gila County.

By 2009, 24 percent of state workers and 14 percent of Gila County workers had completed college.

However, despite Gila County’s more than doubled share of college degrees, the county still lags far behind Maricopa County — where 26 percent of workers have college degrees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Gila County also remains burdened by a relatively high percentage of residents who never even finished high school.

Back in 1970, that included 42 percent of the state population, 54 percent of Gila County’s population and 40 percent of the Maricopa County population.

By 2009, the number of poorly educated workers had dropped sharply — to 19 percent statewide, 22 percent in Gila County and 18 percent in Maricopa County.

Although Gila County still trailed Maricopa County, the gap had narrowed.

The education and training figures hint at some anomalies in the current high jobless rate that have perplexed economists.

In past recessions, people cycled on and off the unemployment rolls as they found new jobs. But in the current recession, a worrisome core of workers has remained unemployed month after month. Congress has twice voted major extensions of the duration of unemployment benefits, although the last extension was so delayed by partisan wrangling, that some long-term unemployed workers went weeks without any income.

A scary trend has emerged in the current recession, with job loss concentrated in traditionally middle-income jobs, according to recently published analysis by the Center for American Progress and the National Employment Law Project.

The jobs most hard hit by the recession and the stubbornly high unemployment levels include jobs that have long served as the entry to the middle class — jobs like office and administrative work, plus blue color jobs, especially in manufacturing.

On the other hand, the recession has weighed less heavily on people in high-skill, high-wage jobs that require a lot of training.

And perhaps surprisingly, the job loss has also not been as noticeable for the low-wage, low-skill jobs.

The fierce struggle of many people enrolled in job training programs in Gila County seems to bear out the trend cited in national studies. So has the elimination of manufacturing jobs in the timber industry, disappearance of agricultural jobs and the collapse of construction — leaving the battered tourism sector as the mainstay of the local economy, together with spending by retirees.

Even more worrisome, Arizona’s ability to generate new jobs has plunged, taking state revenues down with it.

For decades, Arizona led the nation in job growth. But in the past two years, the state has remained near the bottom when it comes to that vital figure, according to a recent report by the Arizona Department of Commerce. For instance, Arizona’s personal income growth has fallen from third in the nation to 46th.

The state’s output per worker has also fallen relative to competing states — from 11th nationally to 43rd nationally.

Generally, Arizona’s work force includes more low-wage jobs than most states. Moreover, Arizona has both more children and more retirees relative to the people with jobs than most states, according to an analysis released by the state’s Department of Commerce in August. Still, Rim Country residents have struggled with grim persistence to the hard times — many doing whatever it takes to hang on.

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