Pamela Gay needed work for the first time in 28 years after she closed her Cleburne County poultry farm in December.
She still needs a job.
"I seem to be having a pretty hard go at it myself," Gay said. "The job market is really tight."
Gay, who said she has applied for as many jobs as she possibly can, from jobs in greenhouses to work at chicken processing plants, is one of many Alabamians having difficulty finding employment.
Alabama has seen its jobless rate grow this past year, reaching a level in June that was higher than during the same month last year, labor statistics show. Meanwhile, many other states and the U.S. on average have enjoyed decreases in unemployment this year as they recover from 2008’s Great Recession.
While economists agree the slow job growth is an issue, they argue as to the causes and solutions to the problem. Some say more education funding is needed to offer more employable workers to businesses. However, others say that fluctuations in the economy are making companies wary of hiring and that it’s mainly up to the private sector to turn the state job market around.
According to Alabama Department of Labor statistics released Friday, Alabama's unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in June — higher than the 6.5 percent rate during the same month last year and part of a continuing trend in state jobless growth since the beginning of the year.
Calhoun County has faced similar growth in unemployment this year. The statistics show the county's unemployment rate in June was 7.9 percent, slightly higher than the 7.8 percent rate it had during the same month last year.
Conversely, the U.S. unemployment rate decreased to 6.1 percent in June from 6.3 percent in May. It also had a lower unemployment rate than the 7.5 percent rate it had in June last year. The statistics also show that Alabama is the only state to experience growth in its unemployment rate in the last 13 months.
Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University at Montgomery, said unevenness in the Alabama's job market has contributed to the state's slow recovery. For instance, the state has strong auto manufacturing and service and hospitality sectors, which did not suffer much during the height of the recession, meaning they did not lay off many workers that now need replacement, Deravi said.
In the meantime, the state is struggling to grow jobs in professional services and the construction trade,Deravi said. While some housing markets, such as Birmingham's, have recovered since the recession, many others, including Calhoun County's, are still stagnant, meaning fewer construction jobs.
"Commercial construction has really not added and come back online," Deravi said.
Deravi said to ensure long-term steady growth, better education and workforce development in the state are needed to train workers for the jobs that are available. Doing that will also make the state more enticing for new companies, he said.
"The economy is being driven by skill sets and requires major investment in education," Deravi said, adding that raising taxes to fund such investments should be considered. "Cutting taxes and having smaller government can be correct to some extent, but if you cut too much, it can be counter-productive."
Yasamie August, spokeswoman for Gov. Robert Bentley's office, wrote in a Tuesday email that Bentley still does not favor raising taxes. August wrote that Bentley is looking at other ways to improve workforce training in the state, noting the governor attended the first Alabama Workforce Council meeting Monday — a group comprised of business leaders and educators from across the state.
"One of the recommendations from the Alabama Workforce Council is proposed funding opportunities to increase established industry-funded and Education Budget allocations to be used as scholarship programs for college technical education and dual enrollment programing," August wrote. "Having a properly trained workforce is how we secure and retain jobs."
August also wrote that the governor's office wants to expand the number of career coaches in high schools to help students be more aware of job opportunities.
To train or not to train
Robert Robicheaux, an economist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said there are many employers in the state that cannot fill job openings because they can't find enough properly trained workers.
"It's not just a matter of the governor going out and attracting new business to the state," Robicheaux said. "There's a disconnect to what the workplace needs ... there's a great need in our state for skilled craftsmen."
However, Robicheaux said he did not see pumping more money into education as the answer. Robicheaux said it appears more younger workers entering the job market out of college are either not obtaining the skills they should or are unwilling to start off with lower-paying jobs.
"Certainly, our community colleges and governor and mayors are doing their best to encourage economic development," he said. "It's more of a cultural issue — people not willing to work themselves up the ladder."
Robicheaux said the state, like many other parts of the country, is struggling to lower unemployment because companies became more efficient during the height of the recession.
"Jobs that went away in 2010 are just not coming back," Robicheaux said. "Companies are using technology to replace those workers."
Ahmad Ijaz, director of economic forecasting for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, said more education funding isn't needed because the claims of lack of skilled labor in the state are overblown.
"Companies have really never been able to find people who have the exact skill set they want," Ijaz said. "The state has already done a real good job and has excellent workforce training ... Alabama has one of the best workforce development programs in the nation."
Instead, it is the private sector holding off on hiring until it sees more stability in the economy, Ijaz said. Economic growth has been uneven across the country in the past year, which makes employers cautious, he said.
"If they're not sure what the economy will do six months from now, they'll be reluctant to hire just to lay them off later," Ijaz said. "A lot of it is up to private employers too, to do their part in hiring."