One of the most trusted economic indica- tors is signaling that the ongoing recession is waning — at least in Northwest Arkansas.
As of April, unemployment in a four-county area — Benton, Madison and Washington counties in Northwest Arkansas and McDonald County in south- west Missouri — had dipped to 5.8 percent, compared with 7.6 percent statewide and 9 percent nationally.
“There has been definite improvement … over the past year, but there is still higher unemployment than in the boom times,” said Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
From 2000 to 2005, the aforementioned four-coun- ty area never experienced unemployment greater than 4 percent. But by early 2010, it was at 7 percent.
Unemployment is affected by a number of factors, including supply and demand. If demand for goods and services is high, production and employment fall in step. Necessary and affordable products and services survive best during diminished economic times.
Health care is a sector that has shown considerable strength through the recent tough times.
“During the recession, healthcare employment [in Northwest Arkansas] actually increased,” Deck said.
Population growth and the aging of the baby-boom- er generation are two significant factors.
“As the population ages, there is an overall effect on adult health care and geriatric care,” said Steve Percival, vice president of Human Resources at Wash- ington Regional Medical Center. “The University of Arkansas nursing programs have nearly double the enrollment, gearing up in anticipation for the baby boomers requiring more health care.”
The median age of registered nurses also is increasing, according to the American Nurses Associa- tion, creating a critical need for nursing and residential care, hospi- tal employees and physicians.
Internally, the recession had little effect on health care, Percival said. “We did not layoff anyone,” he said. “We made changes to our expenses, but our employment outlook is very positive.”
Northwest Arkansas’ virility and ability to withstand the recession also is largely fueled by the stability of companies such as Walmart Stores Inc., J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and UA, said Deck.
Retail sales are rebounding nationally, benefiting the trade and transportation sectors. Restaurant, hotel and tourism sectors also are showing signs of an economic upswing.
“Trends in consumer behavior continued [despite the recession],” Deck said. “People would still go out to eat, although they cut back on the amount spent. Restaurants adjusted by offering deep discounts to keep customers coming through the door.”
In addition to spending less money, many people ate out less often, said Dave Godwin, managing partnerofSpringdale-based Restaurant Management Group, which operates MarketPlace Grill in that city. To avoid layoffs and keep the register ringing, Godwin and his staff created a fixed-price menu that allowed guests to select appetizers, entrees and desserts to get more for their money.
“This ‘Two can dine for $19.99’ offer has been a large part of the success that has helped us through the negative impact of the econom- ic downturn,” Godwin said.
Not all trends are stable or improving, however. Construction in the area is still suffering from the burst of the building boom that began to surface in 2007. That directly affects other employment sectors, including Realtors, title companies and lending institutions.
Governmental positions also remain hard-hit. Tax revenues have not rebounded, and these entities cannot operate well in deficit situations. As a result, some govern- ment employees have lost jobs or endured pay freezes.
In the manufacturing sector, decreased demand has led some companies to replace certain man- agement jobs with lower-paid ones, Deck said. While that doesn’t raise unemployment numbers, such salary reductions adversely affect in- come structure and the economy.
Overall, there is evidence that employment is growing again in Northwest Arkansas. Although the region is still below its peak of 210,700 jobs during the early 2000s, openings were up by 1.9% in April compared with a year ago.“Now I not only have to care for my family, but I need to find the time to study and learn the new skills to become a RN.”
Cat Donnelly of Durham in rural Washington County also knows the challenges of parenting and going to school. She also works full time at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as an administrative assistant, where she is also a senior on schedule to graduate next May with her bachelor’s degree in cre- ative writing.
Like many students, Donnelly has found online classes very convenient.
“It’s hard for a working adult with a family to also squeeze in physically going to classes, which is why the online courses are so perfect,” she said. “The only thing is that you have to have discipline to not fall behind.”
Donnelly considers the hard- est part of working and going to school is not being able to enjoy the college experience in the man- ner of traditional students.