The economy is booming, but not everywhere

By Aaron Rice
April 4, 2019

Low unemployment rates, high labor force participation rates, positive employment and labor force changes, and increasing wages define the strong small metro areas in this country.

There are a total of 324 metro areas with less than 1 million people. There are three in Mississippi: Gulfport, Hattiesburg, and Jackson. The Wall Street Journal recently ranked those areas to determine the hottest and coldest markets in the country.

The top markets were as varied and diverse as the country, though it certainly helps to be in the Southeast or the interior West.

Some may roll their eyes at three of the top seven small markets benefiting from today’s oil boom. Odessa, Texas, of Friday Night Lights fame, came in at number five with Lake Charles, Louisiana at number seven. And the number one small metro area? Midland, Texas. Midland has an unemployment rate of 2.3 percent, labor force participation rate of 77.1 percent, a 9 percent employment change, and a 7.4 percent labor force change. Barbers can even make $180,000 a year in the oil boom town. Certainty times are good.

But, the hottest markets extend far beyond oil. The top five markets also include locales such as Greeley, Colorado, Provo, Utah, and Columbus, Indiana. Other growing markets in the Southeast include College Station, Texas, Gainesville, Georgia, and Huntsville, Alabama.

We are in what may be the hottest job market of our lives. The economy has added jobs for 100 consecutive months (though the 20,000 jobs created in February came in low). Unemployment is at its lowest level in 49 years. Both low-skill and high-skill jobs are in-demand and, as a result, salaries are growing.

Yet that isn’t everywhere. Including a large segment of Mississippi.

Mississippi’s three metro areas are, unfortunately, more likely to be on the back half of this list.

Hattiesburg, home to the University of Southern Mississippi and William & Carey University, had the best showing at 154. The unemployment rate is 4.1 percent with a 59.8 percent labor force participation rate. The employment change is 1.5 percent and the labor force change is 0.9 percent.

The state’s capitol city wasn’t far behind at 173. The Jackson metropolitan area has an unemployment rate of 4 percent, with a 61.9 percent labor force participation rate. Employment grew by 1.3 percent and the labor force grew by 0.7 percent.

While Hattiesburg and Jackson were slightly better than stagnant, the Gulfport metro area fared much worse. Among the 324 metro areas, it came in at 282. The unemployment rate is around the state average at 4.8 percent, while the labor force participation rate is 54.1 percent. Employment grew by just 0.2 percent and the labor force contracted, decreasing by 0.4 percent. This made Gulfport one of 93 markets to see their labor force get smaller over the past year.

In Mississippi, growth is largely relegated to pockets, not metro areas.

Oxford and Lafayette county have a booming economy and a low unemployment rate thanks in large part to Ole Miss, but it generally doesn’t extend beyond the county line.

There’s a similar story in officially designated metro areas. In the three-country Hattiesburg metro area, Forrest county has an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, which is in line with the state average. Lamar county, it’s western neighbor, has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 3.9 percent. Meanwhile, Perry county, which is east of Hattiesburg, has a 6.5 percent unemployment rate.

In the Jackson metro area, unemployment rates range from 3.7 percent in Rankin county to 6.5 percent in Copiah county.

This, of course, isn’t that different than what much of the smaller markets in America are experiencing.


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