Jan 27, 2022 - Business

A closer look at Arkansas' record-low unemployment

Data: Arkansas Division of Workforce Services. Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Arkansas Division of Workforce Services. Chart: Axios Visuals

What's both good and bad at the same time? The employment situation in Arkansas.

What's happening: The percent of unemployed Arkansans looking for work has trended down for the past year, dropping to a record low 3.1% in December. At the same time, small businesses looking to hire people aren't getting the applicants they need.

Why it matters: Small businesses make up more than 99% of all businesses in the state, employing nearly a half-million people. A shrinking labor pool hinders their ability to grow and in some cases retain customers.

  • Recent research from Goldman Sachs highlights continuing headwinds for entrepreneurs.

Context: Mervin Jebaraj, director of U of A's Center for Business and Economic Research, cited three reasons for the conundrum:

  1. Many people have retired — at least while the pandemic has been active — so they're not counted as looking for a job.
  2. Another large group can't find or afford childcare, so they've simply pulled out of the job market.
  3. Demand for workers is up due to a 30—40% increase in new businesses started in 2020 and 2021.
Data: Arkansas Division of Workforce Services; Map: Thomas Oide/Axios

By the numbers: The unemployment rate in the northwest corner of the state is between 1.4% (Benton County) and 1.6% (Madison County), the lowest rates in Arkansas.

  • East Arkansas has the highest rates at 5.2% (Chilcot County), 4.8% (Phillips County) and 4.2% (Mississippi County).
  • The numbers are for November, the most recent data available.

What they're saying: Mike Rohrbach, who owns Flying Burrito and is partners in Bocca Italian eatery and the Kingfish bar in Fayetteville, said he could use as many as nine employees.

  • "It's the worst I've ever seen," he told Axios while he was cooking for the lunch rush. "They're just not coming through the door."
  • He's been in the food service industry for nearly 30 years and is careful not to work employees too hard for fear they'll quit.

The bottom line: Jebaraj says the only real solution is to get past the pandemic.

Of note: The annual Business Forecast from the Center for Business and Economic Research is Friday at 11:30am. Contact the Center to register.

Go deeper: An interactive version of the state's unemployment map.

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