I got a surprise recently: Our employment is down to 6.1 percent.
Yeah, 6.1 percent. That's only slightly higher than the national average yet third worse among counties in Montana.
How can that be? I wondered myself.
We are in a boom. Yes, this is a boom — at least for southern Lincoln County it is. I know there's a lot of people out there that might disagree but right now if you want to work there is work available.
Anyway back to the unemployment figure, which comes from the state Department of Labor and Industry. I mulled it over for while and despite the "boom" and despite my understanding that some workers actually fall from the unemployment rolls and simply disappear as statistics — even though they remain unemployed — I couldn't believe 6.1 percent.
So I checked back into the records we have available — every monthly report released by the state labor department going back more than 20 years. I couldn't find a 6.1 percent for 20 years. I did find a 21.5 percent nearly 20 years ago and a 20 percent as recently as 1996. And there was a 6.7 percent in 1987. But the 6.1 percent in September 2005 is the lowest we have on record.
Then I noticed that in the same September 2005 report from the state it says our unemployment for September 2004 was 6.6 percent.
Whoa, there partner.
Looking back at my September 2004 report, it says we had 11.1 percent unemployment.
So which is it?
I e-mailed the Department of Labor and Industry and asked that question.
Two days later I received a call from an economist at the labor department in Helena. Montana has changed is "methodology and estimation," he said. "We changed the way we look as new entrants to the labor market."
In the recent past 16- to 19-year-olds made up 20 percent of the new entrants to the job market. Today, in Montana, they comprise 50 percent of the new entrants. These are youngsters who quit high school or graduated.
Except in Lincoln County. We don't have many new entrants in that age category. He told me that. And we still see the same effects of unemployment.
So why do we have only 6.1 percent unemployment? I never really got an answer that anyone living here for any amount of time would buy.
My guess is there's some politics going on here and 6.1 percent looks a whole lot better than 9.1 or 11.1 — especially when this "methodology" is applied across 56 counties.
Yes, there's a building boom going on. But we lost a passel of jobs in Eureka when Owens and Hurst shut down. We have our own former mill workers — some of whom recently finished their training and education period and last I heard were looking for work. And recently, at least a dozen guys that worked at the mill here and transferred to the Stimson plant at Bonner were laid off.
Most people here believe that with the present construction boom, anybody that wants to work is working. That is true but it doesn't change the fact we have people that are becoming and have been invisible to the employment statistics. In reality they still exist.
In my brief conversation with the economist I mentioned a study I heard about from the University of Montana that says our actual unemployment is probably closer to 40 percent. He said he was not familiar with it and "didn't went to split hairs."
I told him in applying for federal grants for local projects I would rather have those higher numbers than the 6.1 espoused by the state's new math. He said that would be more advantageous for us.
Doh! — Roger Morris