BEDFORD — A COVID-ravaged 2021 caused millions of Americans to experience financial hardships that shook the economy to its core.
Despite the topsy-turvy trajectory of the economy due to shutdowns and business closures across the nation, the economy was showing tangible signs of progression. Throughout the last year, millions of workers who lost their jobs to the pandemic successfully returned to work. Unemployment has remained steady and low in recent months as well.
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However, consumer prices skyrocketed in December to record levels of inflation. The government announced Wednesday that The Labor Department's consumer price index (CPI) experienced a 7% increase, the highest recorded in nearly four decades. These rising inflation levels have diminished recent wage gains. The emergence of the Omicron variant has brought further question marks as well.
Lawrence County labor market changes
Lawrence County has been impacted by these national trends as well.
Shance Sizemore of the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council shared some insights into how the pandemic has caused a shift in the hiring landscape in Bedford and across Lawrence County.
"Pre-COVID, you had a cycle where we saw decreasing unemployment, an increase in labor participation. All of that good stuff was causing a pretty strong demand from employers for employees in the local market," he said.
Sizemore said the local labor market has changed significantly throughout the last year, forcing companies to find new ways to find workers.
"So things like retraining became really important. Bringing in new workers and getting people back into the labor force to build back up. COVID obviously made a huge shock to the system, so much so that we had large-scale shutdowns," he said. "So that is when we saw the unemployment rate go from mid to upper threes, all the way up to around 14% unemployment."
Lawrence County followed national trends in unemployment and hiring patterns. According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the state of Indiana reported an unemployment rate of 2.1% for November, which was lower compared to the state's unemployment numbers in October.
Around 69,500 Indiana residents were deemed to be unemployed in November. The state's entire labor force is comprised of more than 3.3 million workers.
Lawrence County had an unemployment rate of 2.0% in November. The county is home to a local labor force consisting of 20,708 residents. Out of this total, 417 were considered to be actively searching for jobs.
"During that time period, we kind of followed the national wave," Sizemore said. "On a local scale, we can't do a whole lot in regard to the big national trends of unemployment."
Sizemore explained that the closure of businesses and schools forced many residents and families to shuffle their work and social responsibilities.
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"What we saw during that time period is that people were either at home or had to be at home to teach their kids," he said. "Many had limited daycare access. Schools were closed so they had to be home with their young children. They transitioned into other forms of work. So you see a lot of the service industry folks move over to manufacturing or some other profession. We saw people who transitioned to working from home. So we're seeing more and more people living in Lawrence County, but working for companies based in Indianapolis, Louisville and all across the country."
Staffing shortages have been a persistent issue for many employers, both small and big, throughout the last several months. Sizemore said that Lawrence County has not been immune to this lingering worker absence.
"What we are seeing now is record levels of unemployment. We were down in the last month in November around 2%. That's also caused much of the larger national trend," he said. "A lot of our service industries are looking for workers. Manufacturing is still looking for workers. There's a really strong demand cycle still for our local employers, so much that one of the biggest issues right now is just finding people to work and getting them on board and trained."
Sizemore explained how the ongoing pandemic has led to many workers embarking on new opportunities, sometimes in entirely new industries. For others, COVID-19 has fast-tracked their retirement plans.
"You see people who have transitioned to working from home or transitioning to a different type of industry altogether during COVID. Well, now they're not going back after service jobs, or they're maintaining that work-from-home relationship because it's best for their family at the time. Additionally, you are seeing that the demand cycle for daycare and childcare to be a really important factor."
Lawrence County investment
Sizemore also mentioned that several large projects are currently underway across Lawrence County. This is attracting more attention to Bedford as companies continue to show interest in investing in the county and other parts of southwestern Indiana.
One of the bigger undertakings is the Lehigh Cement Co. project. A new cement plant is being constructed in Mitchell to replace the existing one, which is more than 50 years old. Additionally, General Motors announced last month its plans to invest more than $51 million in its aluminum die casting foundry in Bedford.
"We do have a couple of large projects happening in the community that are bringing in people from outside," Sizemore said. "With Lehigh having people from all across the country staying in our hotels throughout the week. So, all of our hotels are completely booked with construction workers. Those construction workers are going out to eat in town or using our laundromats and are staying in local places."
Looking ahead to the rest of the new year, Sizemore said he expects to see a sustained push for new employees to be integrated into the local economy.
"I think you'll still see pretty strong demand for employees, which the rule of supply and demand means that there's going to continue to be pressure on our employers for wage increases, salary levels, etc, as people compete for workers. That's not surprising. We've seen a pretty strong increase in wages in Lawrence County over the last several years. Now that the question is, does it continue to stay on pace with inflation? So wages can actually benefit our citizens rather than just having an increase in pay but having equal or more increase in costs."
This article originally appeared on The Times-Mail: Shance Sizemore looks ahead to economic developments in the new year