Panhandle jobless rate better than much of W.Va.

September 04, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Rhonda Hawkins, left, assistant mutuel manager at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town (W.Va.) Races, looks over daily programs at the track Friday with Erich Zimny, director of racing operations.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In today’s struggling economy, jobs are paramount on the minds of families, employers and economists.

While hit by the economy like the rest of the country, West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle seems to have weathered a lot of the storm, and has seen the jobless rates improve in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.

George W. Hammond, a noted West Virginia University economist, will speak on jobs and the like at a luncheon focusing on the Eastern Panhandle’s economic outlook Oct. 25 at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Hammond is expected to cover the positive effects on the region’s employment and economy from employers like Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard, the soon-to-open massive Macy’s online service center, Shepherd University, American Public University in Charles Town and the public schools, among others.

The Panhandle’s jobless rate, although up in recent years, is better than it is in many West Virginia counties.

Jefferson County has the second-lowest jobless rate in the state.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the Eastern Panhandle was dragged down, too,” Hammond said. “The region’s economy will grow, but it was hit hard by the global downturn. There was a significant loss of jobs in 2009, especially in housing construction.”

He said whenever there’s a boom or bust in the housing industry, jobs are lost or gained.

While West Virginia has been struggling for the last 20 years, the Panhandle has enjoyed population and economic growth because of its proximity to the Washington, D.C., area, local economic development officials said.

Employment has been boosted by major federal government institutions that dot the Panhandle. They include the National Conservation Training Center outside Shepherdstown, W.Va., the U.S. Coast Guard Operations Systems Center on the Jefferson/Berkeley county line, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol training center near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., plus long-standing facilities like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and IRS Data Center, both in Martinsburg.

The federal government and the region’s leisure/hospitality industry help keep the Panhandle’s unemployment rate low compared to the rest of the state, Hammond said. The Panhandle’s economy will continue to grow, he said.

Thomas Bayuzik Jr., executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority, said about half of the county’s work force commutes to federal and private employment jobs in the D.C. area.

Four commuter trains haul them back and forth every day.

Bayuzik said the ongoing downsizing of the federal government will have an impact in Jefferson County.

“We have to expect that,” he said.

He said there is an increase in institutional construction jobs.

“There are still some houses being built, but it’s not a boom,” he said.

Contractors are hiring for construction projects under way at Shepherd University, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol center and a U.S. State Department facility in Summit Point, W.Va., Bayuzik said.

Al Britton, general manager at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, said the number of employees there has surpassed 2,000, most of whom work full time. About 65 percent of the workers live in Jefferson County, he said.

“We’ve added more than 800 people since table games opened last year,” he said.

The casino’s annual payroll hovers around $60 million, he said.

Claims for unemployment benefits at WorkForce West Virginia outside Martinsburg are down because many jobless workers have exhausted benefits.

Some have been receiving them for the maximum 99 weeks, said Sandra Hamilton, field supervisor at the facility at 891 Auto Parts Place.

“The longer someone is out of work, the harder it is to find a job,” she said.

Many are victims of lost manufacturing jobs who will need to be retrained, she said.

Employment at the Macy’s facility in Berkeley County, which is slated to open later this year, is expected to reach more than 1,200 workers, plus another 750 during peak shopping seasons, officials said at the time ground was broken in April.

Macy’s will fill the usual positions of forklift driver and line people, but most of the jobs will require skills, including knowledge of computers, Hamilton said.

“It’s going to be very complicated and automated, and people will need those skills,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said her agency can help with training through partnerships with area colleges and technical schools.

She said workers in banking, marketing, mortgage companies and real estate firms, plus those who hold executive positions, are losing jobs because of the economic slump, which hits all areas of employment.

College graduates with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees come in seeking help finding a job, she said.

Employers are being inundated with job applicants, so much so that they now refer all applicants to the WorkForce center. It can offer job-help services at no cost, Hamilton said.

The number of Jefferson County residents who applied for unemployment benefits in July was 1,260, down from the 1,550 who applied July 2010. The jobless rate in July was 5.3 percent, the second lowest in the state. In 2010, it was 6.4 percent.

According to WorkForce West Virginia statistics released last week, some 3,440 Berkeley County residents applied for benefits in July, compared to 4,210 a year ago, with jobless rates of 7.8 percent in July and 9.2 percent last July.

In Morgan County, 520 applied in July, down from 670 in July 2010. The jobless rate in July there was 8.0 percent and 9.9 percent a year ago, according to WorkForce West Virginia.

In July, Monongalia County reported the lowest jobless rate in West Virginia at 4.8 percent. Mason County on the Ohio River had the highest July rate at 13 percent, according to WorkForce West Virginia.

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