Economy

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Kentucky’s unemployment rate is now at the lowest point in 15 years.  Figures released Thursday by the state show that the July unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, the lowest in Kentucky since May 2001. 

The state is now on par with the national average which also posted a 4.9 percent jobless rate last month.  Manoj Shanker, an economist at the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training, says Kentucky is at nearly full employment.

"When the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, that means that anybody who really wants a job has a job," Shanker told WKU Public Radio.

On the flip side, the low jobless rate can present a challenge for employers, making it difficult for them to find workers without raising wages or bringing them in from other states. 

Kentucky’s strongest job sector continues to be manufacturing followed by the financial activities sector.  The retail trade, construction and government sector all reported losses last month.

Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

Trade has emerged as a potent issue this election season, with the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a flash point in the political debate. The stakes are high for the Ohio Valley region, where thousands of workers and billions of dollars in goods could be affected by the outcome of this trade agreement.

Very different sides of the trade story can be found at  two manufacturing companies in southern Kentucky: conveyer-belt maker Span-Tech and auto parts maker Trace Die Cast.

These businesses are just 30 miles from each other, but when it comes to their views on trade, they’re worlds apart. Their differences can tell us a lot about why trade is such a contentious issue and what it means for our region.

Thinkstock

We’ve all heard it before: The best time to start saving for retirement was yesterday.

But many workers, particularly young, low-income and part-time workers, are more likely to not have a retirement plan through their jobs.

Nearly half of private sector employees ages 25 to 64 in Kentucky work for a company that does not offer a retirement plan. That’s approximately 566,780 people, according to a new report from the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.  

“States are needing to step in,” says Ashley Spalding, research and policy associate at the center. 

Spaulding authored the study, which recommends a state-sponsored plan that would automatically deduct savings out of a worker’s check.

Flickr/Creative Commons

Mark Muro is having a conversation with someone in a bar. The person’s in their late twenties and is having trouble finding work. Maybe they have a high school diploma. Mark’s advice? Enroll in the closest community college you can.

Fast.

Auto manufacturing and digital services are some of the industries contributing to Kentucky’s economic growth. And you don’t need a Master’s or PhD to get a job in these areas.

“STEM workers are crucial to regional prosperity and advanced industry success but they don’t all need to have to have college degrees,” says Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Muro did a study tracking the growth of advanced industries. Blue-collar STEM jobs fall under these industries, which employ more than 170,000 people in Kentucky. The average salary in an advanced industry is just over $65,000 in the commonwealth. That compares with almost $42,000 for all other industries.

Report: Kentucky Coal Jobs Hit Lowest Level Since 1898

Aug 4, 2016
Erica Peterson

Officials believe there are fewer coal jobs in Kentucky than there have been in more than 115 years.

News outlets report that a quarterly report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet reveals that the number of coal jobs statewide dropped by 6.9 percent from April to June of this year.

In western Kentucky, coal jobs dropped 7.9 percent in the second quarter of 2016 while the number of jobs in the state's eastern region dropped 6.1 percent during that same time.

As of July 1, the estimated number of coal jobs remaining in Kentucky was 6,465, which officials say is the lowest mark since 1898.

A switch to natural gas, stricter federal regulations on coal designed to preserve the environment and the advance of renewable energy have contributed to the industry's plunge.

Tennessee Valley Authority

The number of coal jobs in Kentucky continue to decline.  A report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet says the number of jobs statewide dropped by 6.9 percent.

In Western Kentucky, coal jobs dropped 7.9 percent from April to June. The amount of coal produced in that region declined 12.3 percent. Production in the state’s eastern coalfield is the lowest it’s been since 1915.

Kentucky now has less miners than in 1898, before the extension of railroads allowed for explosive growth in production and jobs in Eastern Kentucky.

Analysts say there are a number of reasons for the decline, including competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas; tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality and the growth of renewable energy sources.

Pixabay

You are Letcher County, Kentucky. You are rural, mountainous, and in the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. Your economy is not in good shape. Fox News has called your largest town “the poster child for the war on coal.” You are offered funds to build a new federal prison. It could bring jobs but also brings up troubling moral issues. What do you do?

Call it the prison builder’s dilemma: Letcher County and other rural areas are wrestling with a choice between a potential economic boost and the ethical burden of becoming the nation’s jailers.

Coalfield economies have been hit hard by the industry’s recent decline and Eastern Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District has been among the most affected. Today it has the second-lowest median household income in the country, and the second-lowest rate of labor force participation.

In recent years, a big chunk of the money flowing into the region has come through the Bureau of Prisons. Three federal penitentiaries have been built in the district, and now, money has been set aside to build a fourth — in Letcher County.

Rebecca Schimmel

Miners in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia who helped keep the country’s lights on are worried that their retirement benefits could go dark as a result of a wave of bankruptcies in the coal industry. They hope Congress will approve a bill called the Miner’s Protection Act to shore up the pensions and health benefits promised to union miners.

The bill has been bottled up in the Senate’s Finance Committee but Hill sources say Senate leaders have promised a committee vote before Congress breaks for the summer on July 15.

Joe Holland has been with the United Mine Workers of America for four decades. He worked 10 years as an underground miner for Peabody Energy in Muhlenberg County, in western Kentucky. Born in a company-owned house, Holland is a fourth generation coal miner. His grandmother kept two pictures on the mantle; Jesus and the UMWA’s legendary leader John L. Lewis.“Without Christ y’know they thought they was going to hell, and without John L. Lewis they was going to starve to death,” Holland said.

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky is working on a multimillion-dollar plan to bring broadband internet to the eastern part of the state, home to some of the country’s most impoverished places. A federal report released this year found that from around a third to nearly half of rural residents in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia lack high-speed internet and the job opportunities that come with it. But a few areas are ahead of the curve. In Kentucky’s Jackson and Owsley Counties, broadband has already arrived and is already creating jobs.

With a population of 1,095, Annville, Kentucky is one of the bigger towns in Jackson County. It’s surrounded by grassy fields and rolling hills, which are the inspiration for the county’s tourism slogan: “Where the Mountains and the Bluegrass Blend.

It’s not easy to find a job in Jackson County. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Most people who have jobs work outside the county. For Annville resident Alisha Tanfield, those long costly commutes made it hard to make ends meet. “After you pay gas, you’re not making anything,” she said.

If you’re barely getting by and your livelihood depends on a long commute, car troubles can create a major crisis. When Tanfield’s car broke down she lost what income she had and found herself struggling to provide for her two daughters. Then Tanfield heard about a friend who had found a work-from-home job through the Teleworks USA job board. Tanfield says she’d always been curious about work-from-home jobs but hadn’t tried applying for any because she thought a lot of them are scams.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

Despite a strong showing during the first 10 months of the year, tax revenue was down last month in Kentucky, dashing hopes of a sizable surplus at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

State revenues are still expected to have grown by 3.9 percent over the fiscal year, slightly above the rate the state estimated and budgeted for of 3.2 percent.

“Monthly revenue collections were hampered by declines in several accounts, some expected and some not,” state budget director John Chilton said in a news release.

Some of those “expected” declines include revenues from taxes on insurance premiums, limited liability entities and coal. Coal severance receipts have fallen every month this fiscal year, with a total decline of 32.2 percent.

Creative Commons

The U.S Department of Labor has funded a grant worth $3.4 million to help retrain out-of-work coal miners in Kentucky.

Shuttering coal mines have left thousands of miners in the state without a job, many of them in eastern Kentucky.

The Department of Labor says in a release the supplemental funding of the National Dislocated Worker Grant provides re-employment services and training for nearly 800 workers in Kentucky .

The recent additional funding brings the program to a total of more than $17 million since 2013, serving a total of 3,200 dislocated workers.

The services are provided by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, based in Hazard. The program serves 23 Appalachian counties in Kentucky.

Flickr/Creative Commons/Chris Yunker

Economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis say the nation continues a modest recovery from the Great Recession.  The group held a regional economic briefing Thursday at Western Kentucky University. 

Economists says slow is the new normal for growth in the gross domestic product.  Kevin Kliesen is a business economist and research officer at the Fed.

"You have very strong job growth," Kliesen stated.  "The unemployment rate is low, somewhere around the natural rate of employment.  Wage growth is picking up and consumer spending still looks pretty good."

The nation has seen brisk auto sales, solid gains in construction, and stronger growth in the services sector of the economy.  However, two areas remain disappointing.  Labor productivity growth is weak, and business capital spending has been soft. 

Still, in the near-term outlook, the economy is expected to grow by around two percent this year.  While modest increases are likely, long-term interest rates are expected to remain at historically low levels.

Gabe Bullard

Kentucky regulators are looking for proposals to spur economic development on Appalachia’s abandoned surface mines.

Two state cabinets — the Cabinet of Economic Development and the Energy and Environment Cabinet — announced the pilot program Monday. It’s funded by the massive spending bill passed by Congress last year that sent $90 million to Abandoned Mine Lands programs in the region. Kentucky’s share of that money is $30 million.

The bill’s language requires the money to go toward projects that reclaim abandoned mine lands and create economic and community development. Additional money was included in President Obama’s “Power+ Plan”— a part of his Fiscal Year 2016 budget that addresses economic development in the nation’s coalfields. Obama’s budget hasn’t seen any movement in Congress.

With the $30 million available to Kentucky through the spending bill, state officials say they’re looking for projects that would bring long-term, dramatic growth to Appalachia. State and local governments are the only eligible grant recipients, and projects must be in one of the 54 counties that are in Eastern or Southeastern Kentucky.

Marshal Ray

Southern Kentucky is seeing a huge boost in tourism spending. A new study shows a 10-county region including Barren, Logan, Simpson and Warren Counties had a nearly seven percent increase in tourism receipts last year.

The numbers come from the annual Kentucky Tourism Economic Impact Report released this week.

Telia Butler is a spokeswoman for the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She says the spike in regional tourism is due in part to several new Warren County attractions and events.                     

“We’ve got the Mid-South Conference athletic  championships,” says Butler. “They announced their partnership with Bowling Green to host all kinds of their championships with sports at the beginning of 2015 and they’ve been here all year.”

She says new motor sports events also added to the growth in tourism. The first full year of operation for the National Corvette Museum Motorsports Park drew a large number of visitors.

Sam Owens/Getty Images via NPR

All over eastern Kentucky, you see cars and pickup trucks with black license plates proclaiming the owner is a “friend of coal.”

Even though the license plates are all over, it’s getting harder to find actual coal miners here: Fewer than 6,000 remain in the state, where the coal industry is shrinking fast. More than 10,000 coal workers have been laid off since 2008.

Many have had to leave the area to find work, but a few have found employment in other — and sometime unexpected — fields, as businesses are innovating to use former coal workers in new ways.

Rusty Justice’s company is one of these.

“The realization I had was that the coal miner, although we think of him as a person who gets dirty and works with his hands, really coal mines today are very sophisticated, and they use a lot of technology, a lot of robotics,” says Justice, who has worked in the coal industry all his life.

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