We have come to the end of yet another year, and the beginning of a new one. Every year at this time, I like to take a look back at what has been accomplished regarding our economy and the status of our state’s job market. I’m proud to say that 2017 was a record-setting year for the Alabama Department of Labor in many ways!
For many years, we talked about reaching a milestone – a milestone that would mean Alabama was as close to what is known as “full employment” as it could be. You’d be hard pressed to get any economist to give you a figure for an unemployment rate that defines full employment (mainly because of the many varying factors used in determining that rate), but it’s a little easier to determine full employment based on the number of jobs an economy is supporting.
Here in Alabama, that magic number is 2 million. If our employers can support 2 million jobs, most will agree that we’re in a really good place. In fact, until last year, Alabama had only supported 2 million or more jobs for five months, way back in 2007, well before the Great Recession hit Alabama. So, for nearly 10 long years, that milestone was just a little glimmer, always seemingly out of reach – until April 2017.
In April 2017, our wage and salary employment (the number of jobs our economy is supporting, measured by employers’ payrolls), reached 2,001,500. The milestone was now a reality. And we didn’t stop there. For every month that followed in 2017, our economy supported MORE THAN 2 million jobs, ending with December’s count of 2,025,100, the third highest count in Alabama’s history! The highest was only the month before, in November. I can’t stress how important reaching this milestone is. It means that our economy is strong enough to employ a record number of workers. At the beginning of 2017, I said I hoped to continue to surpass economists’ predictions regarding the number of jobs our economy would add. We were predicted to add 18,700 jobs last year, and we added 32,500!
Along with this record-setting jobs number, our unemployment rate set record after record last year. In September, we tied our previous record low unemployment rate of 3.8 percent. Then in October, we beat it, dropping to 3.6 percent. Then again in November, we saw yet another drop, setting our current record low of 3.5 percent, which we maintained in December.
December’s unemployment rate showed that 75,698 people were counted as unemployed, the fewest number recorded in history. Additionally, the rate also showed that 2,093,063 people were counted as employed, the most ever recorded. We have experienced the largest unemployment rate drops in the country for several months. People are working in Alabama at higher rates than ever before.
Right now, you may be thinking: All that’s great, Fitzgerald. But what KIND of jobs are they? Are they quality jobs? Let me answer that – YES, they are quality jobs. For example, one of our largest growth sectors in 2017 was manufacturing, with an annual gain of 5,800 jobs. Alabama had 269,600 manufacturing jobs in December 2017, the most recorded all year, and the most recorded in nearly a decade. The average weekly earnings for those jobs is $1,049.33, up $64.12 a week from a year ago. The average hourly wage is $24.46, which is also up from last year. Our construction employment, also a large growth sector, was up 6,100 over the year.
Construction employment has always been an indicator of economic health. When the economy is thriving, so is construction employment. Wages in this sector also reflected increases, with average weekly earnings rising to $954.30, up $64.07 a week from last year, with an average hourly wage of $23.68. Every industry that experienced growth in 2017 also showed wage growth. Statewide, workers saw their average weekly earnings rise by more than $30, over all industries.
The good news continues regarding our payments for unemployment compensation benefits. As our unemployment rate continued its decline, so did our initial claims. In 2017, Alabamians filed the least number of initial claims since 1973. Of those receiving benefits, most are doing so for less than 14 weeks, compared to the 99 weeks of availability during the Great Recession.
Last year, I promised to work to keep 2017’s yearly average unemployment rate BELOW 2016’s, which was 6.0 percent. I’m pleased to say that we have met that goal, with 2017’s annual average unemployment rate sitting at 4.6 percent.
Even though I’ve just elaborated on all the good news we’ve experienced and records we’ve set over the past year, I want to also acknowledge that there is still a great deal of work to be done. In fact, I know that the 75,698 Alabamians who are still unemployed would definitely agree with me. We cannot and will not let them down. We are working closely and deliberately with Governor Kay Ivey and her entire Administration to make sure that those Alabamians have every opportunity to find work.
We are collaborating with other state agencies, county and municipal governments, and economic development groups to hold job fairs across the state. In 2017, our regional job fair initiative drew more than 7,000 jobseekers. Over 600 employers participated in these events, including a first-ever Governor’s Disability Job Fair, held in Birmingham. We will continue to host these events in 2018, and we will focus on specific industries as well. We’re working to encourage both employers and jobseekers to participate in the state’s Apprenticeship Alabama program, which provides paid training for workers and allows employers to train their employees, resulting in long-term employment.
Any Alabamian, either jobseeker or employer, should visit one of our 49 career centers located throughout the state for free, personalized assistance. We offer assistance in résumé writing, interview skills, job searches, vocational and educational assistance, training programs, and more for jobseekers. For employers, we can help you post jobs, pre-screen applicants, and help you obtain cost saving tax credits and other programs. Come out and see us! Find out more about any of our services at www.labor.alabama.gov.
Here’s to a great 2018!
By Fitzgerald Washington, the secretary of the Alabama Department of Labor