Rural America’s Shifting Workforce

The workforce in rural America grew in the last year — there are more than 210,000 more workers available in rural and exurban counties. But the distribution of those new workers varies across the country.

Bureau of Labor Statistics/Daily Yonder This map shows the change in the total workforce in rural and exurban counties from February 2011 to February 2012. Red counties lost workers (either unemployed or employed). Blue counties gained workers. Click on the map to see a larger version.

Unemployment in rural America stood nearly a full point lower this February compared to February 2011, according to the latest jobs figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unemployment in rural counties (at 9 percent) remains higher than in urban counties (8.7 percent) or exurban counties (8.5 percent). Exurban counties belong to metro regions, but about half their residents live in rural settings.

In February 2011, rural unemployment was at 10 percent; urban unemployment stood at 9.4 percent; and exurban unemployment was 9.5 percent.

In other words, we’ve seen this picture before: Unemployment is crawling downward, very slowly. For now, unemployment in rural counties is higher than in urban counties — a reversal from the employment situation for much of last year. To see a chart of changes in unemployment rates in rural, urban and exurban counties, click on to the next page. Also on the next page, you can see rural unemployment rates by state. There are huge differences.

This month in the Yonder, we want to look at another phenomenon — changes in the location of the rural workforce.

The map above shows the change in the total workforce in rural and exurban counties over the last year. Workforce is defined as the number of people who either have a job or are looking for a job. (Click on the map to see a larger version.)

The nation’s workforce grew in the last year. There are more than 210,000 more workers in rural and exurban counties this February than in February a year ago.

As you can see in the map above, however, that overall gain was not evenly spread across the country. There were 1,249 rural or exurban counties that lost workers in the last year. Workers either stopped looking for employment or they moved away. Those counties are in red in the map above, the darker the red, the more workers lost.

There were just over 1,300 rural and exurban counties that gained workers in the last year. Either more workers moved into these counties, or people formerly out of the workforce are now either employed or looking for jobs. Those counties are in blue. The darker the blue, the more workers gained.

Some the changes were immense. The three rural or exurban counties that lost the most workers were all in Arizona. Mohave, Yavapai and Coconino counties together have nearly 19,000 fewer workers this February than a year ago.

Meanwhile, Williams County, North Dakota, (with an oil boom) has more than 11,000 more workers this year than in February 2011.

There’s not necessarily a relationship between unemployment rates and the change in the size of the workforce. North Carolina continues to have one of the highest rural unemployment rates in the country, at 11.8 percent in February.

But as you can see from the map, rural North Carolina has a much larger workforce this year than it did in February of 2011. Union County, North Carolina, gained more than 7,000 workers, for example; Johnston County gained more than 4,000.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has the nation’s second lowest rural unemployment rate, at 4.3 percent, but a number of the state’s counties have lost workers in the last year.

Workforce is a fundamental building block of an economy. The Yonder has carried several stories from Columbus, Nebraska, a town that has more jobs than people.

As the economy recovers, having workers ready to fill jobs will becomes very important to local economies.

The chart below shows the rural, urban and exurban unemployment rates in the states. California has the highest rural unemployment rate, at 13.7 percent, in February 2012. Sixteen states have rural unemployment rates at 10 percent or above.

The largest gap between rural an urban unemployment rates in February could be found in Massachusetts, at 5.6 percentage points. The rural rate there was 13.1 percent while the urban rate was 7.5 percent.

Alaska, South Carolina, Arizona and Maine all had rural unemployment rates that were at least three points higher than the rate in urban counties.

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