Jobs study finds Kentucky lags nation in employment, earnings

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 15, 2014 

Nearly 300 laid-off coal miners came to a job fair in Hazard on Wednesday to be screened for about 40 jobs at R.J. Corman Railroad Group.

Kentucky's job growth mirrored that of the United States since the last recession, according to a study released Thursday by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. However, employment and earnings in the state continue to lag those of other states and the national average.

The study found:

■ Only 56 percent of Kentucky working-age adults are employed, the lowest rate of any of Kentucky's border states except West Virginia. The state would have to add 100,000 jobs to move up to the national average.

■ Kentucky lost 104,000 jobs in the last recession but added 65,000 jobs through March.

■ Indiana and Tennessee posted the strongest job growth since the recession.

■ Seven industries accounted for almost all of the job growth in Kentucky since 2009: employment services (primarily temporary job services), auto equipment manufacturing, educational services, restaurants, ambulatory health care, nursing and residential care, and transportation and warehousing.

■ Construction, coal mining and personal services saw major decreases in employment over the past five years.

■ Kentucky has had slow growth in average earnings per job. Last year, Kentucky's average annual pay was $46,400, compared with $55,600 nationally. Kentucky has lost ground against the national average since 1979.

The chamber's study used federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics data analyzed by the chamber's senior economic adviser, Paul Coomes, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Louisville.

In a conference call Thursday, Coomes said the employment services jobs tend to be lower-paying, with an average salary of $26,000 annually. Chamber president and chief executive officer David Adkisson said companies are cautious about adding full-time permanent employees after the recession but are nonetheless eager to train new workers.

Coomes said that technology jobs — which are driving job growth and prosperity in other parts of the country — didn't grow much in Kentucky.

However, Adkisson said that when an auto manufacturer such as Toyota adds a technology-oriented worker, it is counted as automotive manufacturing rather than technology employment.

Coomes said Kentucky continues to benefit from its centralized location in being able to produce and transport goods to vast swaths of the United States.

The low level of employment in Kentucky is concerning, Adkisson said, because it reflects some societal trends in the state, such as the high number of adults on disability.

"There are parts of the state where aspiring to be on disability has become an unfortunate cultural phenomenon," Adkisson said.

He said Kentucky must continue to improve education, although that's not the only factor in future state prosperity.

Coomes said that economically successful states, notably Colorado, draw young educated people who want to live there.

More in-depth research from Coomes about the economy in Kentucky regions and counties is expected to be released in July.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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