8/12/2014 8:34:00 AM Worker exodus: Unemployment is down, but where are the jobs?
Clyde Bradshaw poses with his crew in North Dakota. Bradshaw worked as a project supervisor for Prescott Valley-based Asphalt Paving and Supply, but when road construction jobs dried up, he had to relocate to the Roughrider State to support his family. Courtesy photo
Juan Leyva had to move to Wyoming to find a steady, well-paying job to support his wife Lucy and their children, who remained in Prescott Valley.
By the numbers
According to state labor statistics (workforce.az.gov), the unemployment rate in Yavapai County, after dropping to 5.9 percent in April and 6 percent in May, bounced up to 7.1 percent in June.
On the surface, that still seems pretty good, compared to, say, 2009 and 2010, when the unemployment rates ranged from 10.3 to 10.9 percent.
But the dropping unemployment rates of 2014 fail to illustrate another story: The local labor force is shrinking.
In 2007, when the unemployment rate was a scant 3.6 percent, the labor pool was 96,833 adults; only 3,449 of them were out of work - so there were 93,384 jobs in Yavapai County.
Even in June of 2010, with a disheartening 10.8 percent unemployment rate and 10,459 adults in the county out of work, the labor pool was 97,159- meaning 86,700 were working in the county.
In June of 2014, the county labor force had dropped to 91,447, with 6,504 out of work - and only 84,943 jobs in the county.
That means that, even though the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent lower than four years ago, there were 1,757 fewer jobs in June than in 2010.
Even more eye-opening, there were 8,441 fewer jobs in June than seven years ago - a total jobs drop of 9 percent.
New York Times July 30 story on the Federal Reserve: "The Fed emphasized its concern about the millions of Americans who still cannot find jobs. While the unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent in June, 'a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources,' the Fed said ..."
Numbers are like ammunition. In debates, people tend to choose the numbers that fit their "guns," ignoring the numeric ammunition that would be duds - or blow up in their faces.
So it is that there are two ways of looking at unemployment figures.
Those who choose to make optimistic arguments about the local economy can load up on the falling unemployment rate.
And others who want to fire off about a still-limping local economy can grab numbers showing a declining labor pool - suggesting people are having to leave the Prescott area to find livable work.
The Bradshaws of Chino Valley and Leyvas of Prescott Valley can tell you all about leaving home to find work. They are part of a skilled-worker exodus, having fled high-unemployment Arizona to states where livable-wage jobs are plentiful.
Clyde Bradshaw left his house and family in Chino Valley to work in booming North Dakota.
In the Prescott area, he worked as a project supervisor for Prescott Valley-based Asphalt Paving and Supply, got married and started a fast-growing family; he and his wife, Janna, have four children, ages 5 to 9.
Three years ago, in the teeth of the recession, road projects started drying up, and the asphalt flow in Yavapai County slowed to a trickle.
"There just wasn't enough work to support what I needed to make," said Bradshaw, 35. "So I had to pretty much abandon my family."
Though he misses his family, he takes comfort knowing the North Dakota work is seasonal, and he'll be back by December.
And, if he ever gets homesick, he just has to look around.
"I have my whole crew from Arizona with me," Bradshaw said. "A bunch of people from around the Prescott area."
Bradshaw is not alone in leaving here to find work. His crew in North Dakota includes a dozen Prescott area residents, such as Larry Robinson, James Thompson and Kyle Kilduff.
Even more than the steady work in North Dakota, higher pay has lured these workers 1,500 miles away from home. Bradshaw estimated wages are "50 percent more than what we were getting in Arizona." That includes overtime of up to 90 hours a week.
Even working 12- and 14-hour days, Bradshaw was able to enjoy time with his family when they spent six weeks visiting over the summer. This week, they returned to the Prescott area so the kids could get back to school and his wife back to her job.
"It's tough," Bradshaw said, speaking both for himself and the rest of his Yavapai County-to-North Dakota crew. "It's rough on us. You have to go to where the work is."
Juan and Lucy Leyva can second that. They have been married for 11 years and have two children, Helen, 9, and Abraham, 7.
The kids don't get to see their father very often these days. And when they do, it's at the end of a 14-hour drive.
Juan is a mechanic by trade, but after moving here from California, found work was sporadic. He finally found steady work - and then, when the recession hit, he was laid off.
After an unsuccessful venture in opening his own repair shop ("Some weeks the work was great, other weeks nothing at all," Lucy said), Juan heard from a friend how much work there was in Wyoming - where the 4 percent unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country.
Hired as a mechanic for a coal mining company three months ago in Wyoming, Juan has doubled his earnings. He went from sporadic work at $14 per hour to steady, 40-hour weeks at $28 per hour.
"There is work here," said Lucy, back home in Prescott Valley, "but nothing that could pay enough. So he went to Wyoming."
Alexandra Wright, director of the Regional Economic Development Center at Yavapai College, knows precisely where those livable-wage job losses here have been.
"The construction industry took a huge hit in 2008 - that's where you're seeing the majority of unemployment," Wright said. "One of the difficulties of rural economics is lack of diversification."
The last few years have been a roller coaster for Mike Fann, owner of Fann Contracting. In terms of number of employees in the Prescott area, Fann Contracting is behind only the colleges, Yavapai Country Regional Medical Center and Sturm and Ruger.
"We peaked out at about 423 employees in 2008, but the recession hit us hard in 2009 and we went all the way down to 106 employees by the end of that year," Fann said.
Things have gotten much better at Fann in the last two years.
"Today, we're at 310 employees," Fann said. "We are currently in hiring mode as we meet the needs of our current workload, which is good."
The exodus of construction workers, particularly those with highly prized skills, now has created something of a vacuum.
"It is indeed difficult to find skilled crafts people at this time," Fann said. "During the recession, many skilled folks left the area to find opportunities elsewhere.
"Additionally, those who didn't want to relocate found it necessary to change vocations, so we have lost some of those folks, too."
Sandy Griffis, executive director of the Yavapai County Contractors Association, has seen the same thing.
"The unemployment (rate) in the construction industry has reached a low," Griffis said. "It has definitely dropped. But that's nothing to clap our hands about.
"The decline I feel is a sign that workers have left the industry. They have moved on to oil and gas-producing states like crazy. They have moved into different sectors like manufacturing and aerospace. (Or) they've retired altogether."
And, as the Prescott area construction industry bounces back, that is making for quite a shortage of plumbers, electricians, tile setters and others with highly valued skills.
"The decline in unemployment is scary," Griffis said, "because more and more skilled people are leaving - and that's exacerbating the labor shortage.
"The construction worker is a vanishing breed."
Gone from the county are the likes of Clyde Bradshaw, off to job-rich places like North Dakota - at 2.7 percent unemployment rate, by far the lowest in the country. By comparison, Arizona's 6.9 unemployment rate is higher than all but nine other states.
"There's so many people hungry in Arizona," Bradshaw said. "It's such a tight market it's hard to make any money."
Forget about falling unemployment rates in the county, say those like Lucy Leyva, thinking of her husband 700 miles away.
"There's jobs here, yes there are," she said, "but they pay very little. So it's hard to make a living."
The Leyvas and Bradshaws hope big projects and livable-wage jobs come back to Yavapai County, so in turn the husbands and fathers can come back to their hometown.
"I would go back to working in Arizona," Bradshaw said, "if there was enough steady work so I could support my family."