Ken Hare In Depth: Reality check shows job growth still anemic - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Ken Hare In Depth: Reality check shows job growth still anemic

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Gov. Robert Bentley has been touting his administration's record on job creation, pointing out that more than 38,000 new jobs have been announced for Alabama since he took office in January 2011.

"Job creation remains my No. 1 priority, and these figures reflect the tremendous progress we're making in Alabama," Bentley said.

Those numbers are impressive. But they also need to be placed in context.

While new job announcements may bode well for the future, the reality is that job growth in Alabama remains weak.

Consider these facts that were not covered in the news release this week from the Governor's Office: According to the Alabama Department of Labor's website, Alabama's employment in January 2011 -- the month Bentley took office -- was 1,998,201. In January 2013, it was 1,999,451 -- a difference of just 1,250 jobs.

What elected officials seldom point out, unless they are pinned down by the news media, is that all the while new industries are announcing the jobs they expect to create, many other businesses are much more quietly closing their doors or cutting jobs.

Sometimes those closing or layoffs make news, especially when they involve lots of employees. More often than not, they happen with little or no fanfare. 

But back to the good news. According to the Governor's Office, 77 new companies announced plans in 2012 to locate in Alabama. If all those plans reach fruition, they will bring 6,558 jobs to the state and more than $2.73 billion in capital investment. Another 355 companies already located in Alabama announced they would add 14,289 jobs and more than $2.67 billion in new capital investment.

Among the announcements in 2012 was Airbus's assembly plant in Mobile, which will create 1,000 new Airbus jobs and many more supplier jobs, and expansions at Walter Energy, Austal USA and Hyundai Motor Manufacturing of Alabama.

Although these jobs were announced in 2012, many of the new positions won't come online until months from now. But they do suggest the possibility of job growth in the future. And the Bentley administration points out that new job announcements have trended up for the past few years.

Still, while elected officials quite understandably focus on new job announcements, what the public also needs to keep its eyes on are the net job growth numbers announced each month. I believe they are much more telling than new job announcements.

And those net job numbers are still anemic, despite signs that Alabama's economy is making a slow but steady comeback.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just four states had a smaller percentage increase in total jobs than Alabama in 2012 -- Wyoming, Maine, Connecticut and New Mexico.

Please understand, I do not in any way mean to make light of new job announcements. They are crucial to the state. They are even more important to the local communities where these new jobs are located. The men and women who work to attract new industries are doing important work, and that work is worthy of celebration.

Without those new jobs coming in to offset jobs lost, Alabama would be bleeding jobs and the economy would be tanking.

Instead, Alabama by many measures is doing better economically than most of its neighboring states, and its unemployment rate of 6.9 percent was better than the national rate of 7.9 percent in January.

But unemployment rates are affected by more than just people getting work. They also can be driven down by discouraged workers giving up on finding jobs and essentially dropping out of the labor force.

Also remember that Alabama needs a certain amount of job growth each year just to keep up with population growth.

So, again, those members of the public who want to get a true feel for the state's overall job picture should look not just at new job announcements and unemployment rates, but also at net job growth.

When he was a candidate for office, Gov. Bentley understood that. In a position paper  released during his campaign for governor, Bentley said his goal was to create 250,000 new jobs if elected.

In hindsight, that probably was an unrealistic goal. And elected officials -- even governors -- don't have that much control over job growth, especially in the short term. Lots of factors are out of the control of state officials.

Jeremy King, communications director for the governor, said of the 250,000 jobs: "Obviously, the number you referenced is a long-term goal. And it is a lofty goal. Will we be able to reach it after only four years? With the national economy the way it is, it's going to be difficult.

"But again, you have to set ambitious goals. Governor Bentley is working every day to attract more jobs. What we're seeing is a positive trend in job creation, and we expect that trend to continue," he said.

It is a lofty goal. But candidate Bentley set it, and it's not unfair for the public to hold him accountable for it.

Bentley also set another goal that has received much more attention -- he promised not to take a salary until Alabama returned to full employment, which he later defined as 5.2 percent unemployment.

I believe he's got a reasonable chance of hitting that goal before his first term is over, despite a slight uptick in the most recent unemployment rate. Alabama's average annual unemployment rate for the past 23 years have been at or below 5.2 percent 12 times. Halfway through his four-year term, the jobless rate was down from 9.3 percent when Bentley took office to 6.9 percent. So the state is making significant progress in this measure of employment.

King agrees: "If the national economy improves, we believe it's certainly possible because Governor Bentley has put several things in place that will help our state's economy improve as well. We now have the Accelerate Alabama long-term plan for economic development. We are strengthening workforce training. We have the new College & Career Ready Task Force, etc. The Governor's goal is to reach full employment as soon as possible."

So the 5.2 percent unemployment goal certainly appears to be within reach. But 250,000 new jobs? The governor still has more than 248,000 jobs to go.

Every Alabamian should wish the governor well in meeting that goal. But he's going to need a lot of help from the national economy to even come close.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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