Local unemployment rate rose to 7.8 percent in July
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Aug 16, 2013 | 5301 views |  0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For seven years, Rodney Woodruff of Wellington enjoyed a well-paying job working on vehicle hydraulics and engines at Anniston Army Depot. Then military budget cuts began in March.

He's been unemployed ever since.

Subsisting on just $265 a week in unemployment compensation, Woodruff has exhausted his savings.

"It is a struggle right now," Woodruff said. "I've gotten behind on my mortgage and car payment ... I'm getting calls from the mortgage company, but I can only do what I can do."

Job interviews for workers with his skill set have been few and far between.

"I went to a couple of interviews ... I'm willing to work for whatever jobs are available," Woodruff said. "Whatever comes up, I would relocate if I have to."

Woodruff is hardly the only area resident struggling due to the sagging defense industry. With military cutbacks and the shutdown of the depot’s chemical weapons incinerator, the county has lost thousands of jobs in the last two to three years, resulting in relatively slower economic recovery here compared to other metro areas in the state, economic experts say.

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, Alabama's unemployment rate dropped to 6.3 percent in July from 6.5 percent in June. Meanwhile, Calhoun County's unemployment rate increased to 7.8 percent in July from 7.4 percent in June — a gain of 204 unemployed workers. The increase gives the Anniston-Oxford area the highest unemployment rate of any metro area in the state.

All of the state's other metro areas saw decreases in their July unemployment rates except for Tuscaloosa, which had an unemployment rate increase to 6.9 percent from 6.6 percent in June.

Calhoun County's July unemployment rate was still better than the 8.8 percent rate it had during the same month last year, indicating some improvement. The county gained 63 jobs in July, the statistics show.

"The job market is improving, we did add some jobs," Ahmad Ijaz, director of economic forecasting for the Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research, said about the state's economy. "It's just improving extremely slowly."

Military cutbacks, many due to the drawdown of the war in Afghanistan, are forcing even slower recovery in some areas however, Ijaz said.

Ijaz said the loss of defense industry jobs has far-reaching effects in local economies, including indirect effects on other jobs like retailers, automobile salesmen and real estate agents. Fewer well-paid workers means fewer people buying cars and houses.

"Those are relatively good-paying jobs," Ijaz said of defense industry jobs. "Indirect impacts depends on the earnings of the jobs being lost."

Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, said military cuts have been a problem for the area for some time. Hill said the chamber estimates the area has lost between 3,000 and 3,500 jobs in the past three years due to cuts at the depot and the shutdown of the chemical weapons incinerator, which destroyed its last weapons in 2011. Meanwhile, area defense contractors such as BAE Systems and General Dynamics have also laid off hundreds of workers in recent years due to cutbacks.

"It's having to have a significant impact on the local economy," Hill said.

The area has not seen the last defense industry-related layoffs either. Westinghouse Anniston, the company that operated the chemical weapons incinerator, will lay off 184 workers later this month as part of its efforts, Donna Jackson, spokeswoman for the company.

After August, Westinghouse will still have 170 employees to continue the shutdown efforts, which are scheduled into next year.

In addition, sequestration, a series of federal budget cuts that began this year and resulted in furloughs at the depot, could be extended into next year, military officials say. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said sequestration next year could also result in layoffs of defense civilian employees.

"Sequestration is something we're going to have to watch carefully," said Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University of Montgomery. "If you cut several billion dollars, it's got to have an impact on the economy."

Terry Goode, 51, an Oxford resident and depot employee who was laid off in March, had to look outside the county to finally find a good job. Goode said he is training for a job at the Mercedes auto manufacturing plant near Tuscaloosa and should be done in the next two to three weeks. He plans to relocate to the Tuscaloosa area soon.

Goode said being unemployed for several months was tough.

"It still is right now," Goode said. "I'm struggling and am running out of money."

Goode said gaining computer and interview skills through the free Ready-to-Work class offered by the chamber's Operation First Rate program helped him land his new job. The federally-funded program aims to help displaced defense industry workers find new jobs.

"You have to do things on computers to apply at Mercedes," Goode said. "If I didn't have those skills, I would have been lost."

Woodruff, who also went through Operation First Rate, said even though he hasn't found a job yet, the program has helped.

"They set up the two interviews I did get," Woodruff said. "And the program has improved my confidence being on the computer ... to do the job searches."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.
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