Our Opinion: Despite obstacles, Wilson’s economy still poised to grow

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Wilson County’s economy isn’t out of the woods yet, but local leaders are convinced we’re on the right path.

That path has more twists and turns than we’d like, considering that a recent N.C. Commerce Department report ranks Wilson’s unemployment rate the third-highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties in June, the last month for which data is available.

Wilson’s jobless rate rose from 6.3 percent in May to a full 7 percent. The only counties with higher unemployment are Edgecombe at 7.4 percent and Scotland at 8 percent.

State figures show 35,781 people in Wilson County’s active labor force and 2,491 of those individuals without jobs.

Though our unemployment remains stubbornly high compared to other counties, it’s not all doom and gloom. The number is almost half what it was nine years ago, when Wilson’s jobless rate surged to a staggering 13.8 percent in June 2009, the month economists say the Great Recession came to an end.

Even accounting for month-to-month fluctuations, Wilson still appears to be on an upward trajectory. Unemployment hovered around 13 percent through 2012, dropped to 11.7 percent in October 2013, fell to 9.4 percent in September 2015 and just two years ago stood at 8.7 percent.

New businesses are setting up shop, companies are hiring, low-skilled workers are training to improve their prospects and Wilsonians are being added to private payrolls. We’ve seen conditions get better, even if the pace of progress has been sluggish.

Wilson Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Simons called the jobless rate “frustratingly high” this week, though he noted that hiring has picked up and our economy is better off today than it was a year ago.

“Actually, any changes that have taken place since last year have been positive,” Simons told Times reporter Brie Handgraaf. “We’ve added jobs to the economy, and this past year has been one of the most successful in Wilson’s history in terms of recruiting more job opportunities to our community.”

Economic developers tend to focus business recruitment efforts on firms employing skilled workers and paying above-average wages, but they shouldn’t overlook the need for entry-level positions. The city of Wilson waged an expensive court battle to prevent Sanderson Farms from locating a chicken processing plant on the far side of the Wilson-Nash county line in 2012.*

All work has inherent dignity, and by turning up its nose at manual labor, Wilson harmed the most vulnerable members of its workforce at taxpayer expense. That’s the kind of mistake we can’t afford to repeat if we want to be considered a business-friendly place.

Many Wilsonians face barriers that new jobs alone won’t remedy. Some residents lack the education and training to be competitive applicants; some have criminal records that concern would-be bosses; some have substance use disorders or are recreational drug users who can’t pass pre-employment drug screenings; and still others cite transportation and child care needs.

While there will always be some truly hard cases, most obstacles can be overcome for most people through the wealth of public- and private-sector resources available right here in our community.

The Opportunities Industrialization Center, better known as the OIC of Wilson, offers job training, resume-writing and job interview assistance. Wilson Community College provides degree and certificate programs that prepare workers for skilled trades. For the future workforce, there’s the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology, a high-tech early college where students earn high school diplomas and associate degrees in biotechnology, information technology and applied engineering.

Not everyone on the unemployment rolls wants a job. Help is available for those who seek it, but work ethic and personal responsibility can’t be cultivated in those who choose to game the system. If able-bodied men and women are running in place on the public benefits treadmill, perhaps it’s time for Uncle Sam to withdraw the handouts and offer a hand up instead.

Local unemployment may have as many as 2,491 reasons — one for each jobless worker — as specific individual circumstances vary.

Stakeholders are doing their level best to add more jobs today and plant the seeds that will grow the jobs of tomorrow. We applaud their efforts and urge them to continue asking what our community can do to put Wilson back to work.

* = CORRECTION, Aug. 13 — The published version of this edotorial incorrectly stated that Sanderson Farms switched its chicken processing plant from a Nash County site near the Wilson County line to Kinston following legal wrangling. The Sanderson Farms plant in Kinston was scheduled before the proposed Nash County site. The Times regrets the error.