Chesterfield County is no longer out-performing the state when it comes to one of the most common barometers of economic health: employment.
As recently as February 1992, when the national unemployment rate spiked to 8.2 percent and 7 percent of all Virginians filed jobless claims, unemployment in Chesterfield never exceeded 4.8 percent.
But in April, Chesterfield’s unemployment rate hit 6.8 percent, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That puts the Chesterfield unemployment rate ahead of statewide unemployment for the first time. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not factor in people who have stopped looking for work or those who are working fewer hours than they’d like.
“For this area, it’s probably as bad as it’s ever been,” said William Mezger, chief economist for the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC).
The situation grew even bleaker in May, when unemployment in Chesterfield grew to 7.1 percent – a nearly double the rate from the previous year. It remained 0.2 percent higher than the state and reached its highest point since hitting 7.3 percent in June 1975.
It’s still lower than the national number, which continues to hover around 9.5 percent.
Mezger said the main reason the county has been hit harder than usual by the current recession is the collapse of several large companies in metro Richmond, including Circuit City, LandAmerica and Qimonda. Other companies moved, such as Wachovia Securities.
“Even though many of those companies were headquartered in Henrico County, it didn’t just affect Henrico because a significant number of their employees lived in Chesterfield,” said Donald Lillywhite, research director at the VEC.
Neal Lappe, chairman of the board of directors for the Chesterfield County Chamber of Commerce, pointed to the dramatic slowdown in commercial and residential construction as another cause of the county’s unemployment spike.
Mezger concurred, noting that even self-employed contractors and construction workers who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance are included in the household surveys the VEC uses to compute unemployment figures.
There is some relief in sight, though. Construction is one of the local employment sectors benefiting greatly from the expansion at nearby Fort Lee (Read more about that here), which is projected to grow from 4,000 employees to as many as 11,000 over the next three years.
“If that wasn’t going on, Chesterfield would be in worse shape than it is,” Mezger said.
And for the jobs that are to be had, there is more competition than ever.
Wal-Mart opened a hiring center last month to fill 420 positions need at its new store in the Hancock Village shopping center. As of last week, store managers had received more than 2,000 applications, with more coming every day in preparation for the store’s anticipated Aug. 19 opening.
“There are far more people chasing jobs than jobs available,” Lillywhite said. “A $10 an hour job at Wal-Mart sure beats an unemployment check – and unemployment eventually runs out.”
This story first ran in the Chesterfield Observer, which is an RBS news partner.