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Published: Sunday, 9/19/2010

Despite weak economy, rate of employment loss slows in Toledo area

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

For Betty Bryant, there was a difference when her second supposedly stable job in three years disappeared this summer because the downtown Toledo law firm where she was working dissolved.

This time, she said, her kids are grown and on their own.

“It's just me now,” the 46-year-old former legal secretary explained this week during her latest visit to The Source, Lucas County's one-stop shop to help the unemployed find work.

“I'm trying every day to try and find a job, but if the lights are out, I don't have to explain it to anybody.”

Metro Toledo's economy was ranked last week by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution as one of the 20 weakest-performing in the nation — a finding with which few looking for work in the four-county metro area would argue.

The number of first-time unemployment claims in metro Toledo during the most recent four-week period is the second-lowest for the same period in 10 years, Ohio records show.

And economists say that just as Toledo fell further and faster during the recession than almost any other region of the country, it may recover more quickly as well.

“This is the rubber-band theory at work,” said economist Ken Mayland, of Clearview Economics in suburban Cleveland.

“In a mild recession, the rubber band doesn't get stretched too far, so you don't get much of a snap-back. But when you have a deep recession, you get more of a snap-back.”

During the four weeks preceding Sept. 4, Lucas, Wood, Ottawa, and Fulton counties reported a combined average of 751 new claims for unemployment compensation a week, a 38 percent improvement over the 1,211 reported during the same period a year ago. The only time in the past 10 years that the average was smaller was in 2007.

“It's gradual, but generally speaking, the Toledo area has had some fairly steady improvement,” said Keith Ewald, chief economist with the Ohio Bureau of Labor Market Information.

“One of the biggest is that the initial claims have gone way down, compared to what they were a year ago. We're seeing some growth in manufacturing, and it's not just auto, it's nondurable [goods] too.”

State labor experts are “optimistic that, even though things are slow, we do expect it to continue in a positive direction,” Mr. Ewald said. “But we do have a ways to go.”

Leah Creek, 25, of Toledo, would like nothing better than for the economy to strengthen.

What was supposed to have been a summer of fun and adventure turned into months of papering metro Toledo with resumes and job applications after she was laid off in May from her job at the University of Toledo.

“I pretty much applied to everything I could,” Miss Creek said. “I did a lot of online applications. I took my resume to pretty much every restaurant I could think of.”

But some would consider Miss Creek lucky: Within two months of losing her full-time job, she had found other employment.

Her two new part-time jobs — one at a retailer near her South Toledo home, the other at a bank in Swanton — pay far less than her old job did. Still, she'd rather be making money than not.

“It would be nice to eventually one day be able to teach, or do something that has something to do with my major,” said Miss Creek, who graduated from Bowling Green State University in December, 2008, with a degree in music performance and creative writing.

<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/jpg/TO66067417.JPG> <b><font color=red>VIEW:</b></font color=red> <a href="/assets/pdf/TO73971919.PDF" target="_blank "><b>Metro Toledo Employment Snapshot</b></a> 
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/jpg/TO66067417.JPG> <b><font color=red>VIEW:</b></font color=red> <a href="/assets/pdf/TO73971919.PDF" target="_blank "><b>Metro Toledo Employment Snapshot</b></a>
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George Mokrzan, chief economist with Columbus-based Huntington Bancshares, said of the job market: “With the overall recovery, there generally has been a solid pickup in manufacturing jobs across the country this year.”

Most manufacturers dramatically slashed their employee counts in order to survive the recession, and have been relying largely on productivity gains so far to keep up with demand as the economy recovers, he explained.

However, increased productivity — doing more work with fewer people — can only go so far.

“In order to get production ramped up again,” Mr. Mokrzan said, “they're going to have to pick up more people.”

That's what 36-year-old Brandon Suto is counting on.

A former plant manager for a local food manufacturer, Mr. Suto lost his job at the end of July when his employer merged with a competitor.

Now the Point Place father of three is counting on his experience, education, and a willingness to relocate to help him land another job.

“I have a lot of irons in the fire, outside of Toledo,” Mr. Suto said. “I started looking first outside of [metro Toledo] because of the unemployment here. It's just different times.”

Stubborn unemployment

Indeed, while the numbers of new people losing their jobs seems to be going down, the number of nonfarm jobs on payrolls across the metro area remains mired below the 300,000 level to which it fell in April, 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau estimates that the metro Toledo area had 294,600 nonfarm jobs in July, — a drop of more than 15 percent from its most recent peak of 348,000 recorded twice in 2000.

Although the region received recognition from Brookings for having the nation's second-fastest decline in unemployment, that rate still stood at 11.5 percent in July, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The four-county region's unemployment rate was 1.2 percentage points above Ohio's and a full 2 percentage points above the nation's rate of 9.5 percent.

George Zeller, an economic researcher in northeast Ohio who studies unemployment data, said conditions in other parts of the state continue to lag trends in metro Toledo and Youngstown, where recent manufacturing gains have resulted in some people finding jobs.

“The current four-week moving average of Ohio new unemployment claims during the second week of September is 10,605, a very large 31 percent decline” from the claims a year ago, he said.

The decline in claims, sustained since the end of last year, is the first rapid drop during the decade and is “very good news,” he said.

Mr. Mayland said Ohio's high unemployment rate continues to linger, even as the state's economy has stopped contracting and has started growing again.

Ongoing optimism

Still, he continues to believe economic conditions in Ohio, and in its northwest quadrant, are getting better, not worse.

“The state has made a little headway, the rate has dropped a little bit. Is it randomness? No, I think there's something cooking,” he said.

“Industrial production, on a year-over-year basis, is up 8 percent. Exports have been very strong, up 14 percent year over year, and capital expenditure on equipment is up 16 percent.”

He added: “There has not been much job generation, and it is for the reason that over the last year, there's been a real increase in productivity. But that too is a rubber band that can only get stretched so far.”

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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