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Going low: unemployment numbers in Cleveland County best state, national average 

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Going low: unemployment numbers in Cleveland County best state, national average 

Source: Oklahoma Employment Security Commission

Unemployment continues to fall nationally, and Cleveland County is outperforming the national average.

According to statistics recently released by the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, Cleveland County's unemployment is now 2.4 percent; the state average is 3.3 percent; and the national average is 3.6 percent.

Adjusted for seasonal inflation, roughly 59,600 are currently unemployed statewide out of a labor force of 1.82 million.

Cleveland County Commissioner Darry Stacy said he's not surprised by the news.

"Cleveland County is fortunate that we have a qualified and educated workforce to choose from when making hiring selections," he said. "Our area schools, including the public school system, some good private schools, Moore Norman Technology Center and the University of Oklahoma contribute greatly to our ability to find and hire quality people to serve the residents of Cleveland County."

Stacy pointed to a diversified mix of urban and rural settings as a positive for the area, as well as housing options.

"We have an unusually broad range of housing choices both in our urban centers in Moore, Norman and south Oklahoma City, but also in the beauty of our rural landscapes," he said. "Quality of life is important to employers and employees alike."


Demystifying unemployment numbers

Dr. James McCown, a lecturer at OU with a doctorate in economics from Ohio State University, said unemployment statistics can be misleading.

While Cleveland County's 2.4 percent unemployment mark is encouraging, McCown said it doesn't take into account those that dropped out of the labor force during the Great Recession.

"It's saying 2.7 percent for Oklahoma County and Tulsa County and 2.4 percent for Cleveland County, but the thing is there's a lot of people that dropped out of the labor force during the great recession and really for several years after that," he said. "They are no longer considered to be a part of the labor force, but a lot of them would like to have jobs if they could get one. They aren't being counted as unemployed and they are not being counted as part of the labor force."

Lyyn Gray, director of economic research and analysis at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said the unemployment rate is a good general indicator, but there is some nuance to the metric.

"Just some examples, from a very big picture idea we do have some places that have low unemployment rates and it's not really because those geographies have really strong robust economies," he said. "In fact, some of the places that have historically low unemployment rates their populations aren't really growing. In fact, they may be shrinking. If you went to find a job there you might be really disappointed."

To illustrate Gray's point, Cimarron County boasts the state's lowest unemployment rate (1.8 percent), but has experienced a declining growth rate for decades.

That hasn't been the case for Norman, where population growth has continued to best the state and national average -- .71 percent, compared to .18 and .61 percent, respectively (source: U.S. Census Bureau).

There are other misconceptions surrounding unemployment statistics, but perhaps none bigger than this: many people assume that unemployment numbers are tied to those receiving unemployment insurance benefits.

Gray said the vast majority of unemployed Oklahomans do not receive benefits.

"You don't even have to apply for benefits to be counted as unemployed," he said. "It's the percentage of people that want a job, are actively looking for a job and aren't working right now …

"So, actually there are a lot more people that are unemployed than are on benefits, especially at a time like right now when we have good economic growth and tight labor markets."

As for why the state's unemployment rate has outperformed the national average, Gray pointed to a period of economic recovery.

"In Oklahoma we had a regional recession in 2015 and 2016 because of oil prices and we lost about a third of our oil and gas jobs in those eight quarters, beginning in the quarter of 2015," he said.

"So, that got us off of the national pace. So since the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017 we have grown a little bit faster and so that's probably why the unemployment rate here in the metro including Cleveland County is a little bit better …

"Cleveland County [is] not that much different than the Oklahoma City metro in terms of the unemployment rates; it's slightly lower. I suspect that it's probably slightly lower because of OU, it probably gives it a little more stability in Cleveland County."

Pushing to retain talent

Norman Economic Development Coalition President Maureen Hammond said Norman is particularly attractive as a jobs center. She said NEDC has helped retain businesses and expand entrepreneurship. Those efforts, she said, have helped Norman keep its unemployment rate consistently below 4 percent. Last year, NEDC produced its first-ever business conditions report, which shows some positive signs for the future, as well.

During the survey process of Norman's top employers, Hammond said 25 companies reported growth plans and estimated they would create a combined 1,596 jobs over the next three years.

"This is great news but we need to be sure we are investing in strategies that attract and retain young talent to help fill these jobs as our employers grow," she said. "Data from Market Street Services suggests that while we are growing at a rate faster than OKC metro and nation, we are not growing at a similar rate for young professionals and educated populations."

The concern over "brain drain" in Oklahoma is persistent. According to a report released last week by the Oklahoma City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Texas continues to attract a large number of Oklahoma graduates.

Chad Wilkerson, vice president and economist at the Oklahoma City Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said college graduates with a bachelor's degree or higher have been moving out of Oklahoma, on net, every year since 2013.

"Four of the past five years--2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017--have been the largest net outflow years for college graduates from Oklahoma since at least 1999," he said. "The net outmigration of college graduates in recent years has been fairly consistent across levels of degree attained…

"The recent trend of 'brain drain' from Oklahoma presents some challenges. Having more college graduates move out than move into the state can affect total educational attainment, which in turn could affect overall incomes and tax revenues, as higher educated people tend to earn and spend more."

The good news, Wilkerson said, is that the net outflow of college graduates was lower in 2017 than the previous two years, particularly to Texas. Also, he said the inflow of educated workers has remained steady.

Though the challenge of retaining graduates is clear, Hammond said Norman has a special opportunity.

"Fortunately, Norman is home to the University of Oklahoma which produces incredible talent - if we are to remain competitive and keep jobs in Norman, we must invest in talent-focused initiatives that encourage our best and brightest to stay in Norman," Hammond said.

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.