Unemployment in Rural Areas Dropping

Lower than the national average

Traditionally, small counties in the Mississippi Delta had unemployment rates higher than the state and national average. However, the most recent figures available from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) indicate that unemployment continues to drop even in previously challenged rural counties. The numbers, in most cases, are the lowest seen since 1990.

The unemployment rate for Mississippi in 2023 was 3.2%, and is 2.6% the first four months of 2024. Those numbers beat the national average of 4% for May. 

DeSoto County had the lowest rate in the Mississippi Delta with a rate of 2.8% in 2023 and 2.4 the first four months of 2024. Tallahatchie County went from 3.3% in 2023 to 2.7 this year.  Tate County decreased from 3.3 to 2.8%. 

Some of the highest population Delta counties are also doing well. Warren went from 3.4 to 2.8%. Bolivar County experienced 3.6% unemployment in 2023 compared to only 2.9% so far this year. Tunica went from 3.5 to 2.9%. Carroll County dropped from 3.9% in 2023 to 3.2% this year.

Leflore County dropped from 4.9% in 2023 to 4.3% this year. Sunflower saw rates decline from 4.6 to 4.2% recently. 

Sharkey County went down from 6.1% in 2023 to 5.5%  in 2024. Issaquena County dropped from 7.6 to 6.1%. Issaquena had an unemployment rate of 19.2% in 2011. Humphreys County declined to 6.3% this year from 6.6% but that compares to a high of 18.9% in 2012.

Unemployment rates of 4% or lower are considered by some economists to be nearly full employment as there can be a lag while people change jobs. The low unemployment rates can make it difficult for employers to find enough workers, but also give workers a chance to move up to a better job. Helping with that is the MDES WIN Job Centers.

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans, MDES area director for Delta Workforce area, oversees the WIN Job Centers in 14 Delta counties. Evans said they help match employers with people who have the skills to fill jobs.

“We help provide an array of services to people such as job counseling, mock interviews and helping with resumes or with developing the skills they may need to get a job,” said Evans. “We have an on-the-job training program offered to employers where we are able to assist people with gaining the skills needed to work with the company participating in the on-job-training program. We pay half that person’s salary up to 480 hours. It gives people a chance to see if they like the work and employers the chance to see if a new hire is a good fit.”

The program requires that employers have a 75% retention rate. Evans said most employers are retaining the workers hired under the program.

Businesses also can post any job openings with the WIN Job Centers. Everything is free of charge. Jobs can be posted by calling or visiting a local WIN Job Center where employees can post the opening or get help from someone at the WIN Job Center.

“We invite employers to come into centers to do job interviews or job fairs,” said Evans. “When an employer uses our system, we are able to look in a 30- to 40-mile radius to see people living in the area who have the skills the employer is looking for. We are able to match the employer and applicant together. Employers have their own accounts with a username and password to do a tentative search to see what candidates in the area have the right skills.”

Nicholas said he and his staff find their work very rewarding. 

“When people stop by the WIN Job Centers, they are in need of help whether they have just been laid off or are looking for a job,” said Evans. “We are here to help people to get a job or a better job. It is very satisfying to see them succeed.”

Kimberly Gatewood

Kimberely Gatewood, Ecosystem 3 Coordinator, AccelerateMS, said based on a recent data gap analysis for the counties they serve (Holmes, Carroll, Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Washington, Leflore, Sunflower and Bolivar), some of the occupations that they have identified as having a demand for qualified workers are aerial applicator pilots (crop dusters), electricians, emergency medical technicians, fiber fusion splicers, electrical line workers, plumbers, HVAC technicians and engineers.

Gatewood said despite MDES job postings and feedback from local employers, full employment hasn’t been reached. Recent project announcements like the Amazon Web Services data center and Amplify Cell Technologies in Marshall County highlight the ongoing need for a trained workforce. 

“Although these opportunities are outside the region, Delta commuters, similar to those who work at Nissan in Canton, are likely to take advantage of these jobs,” said Gatewood. “This will allow locals to earn sustainable wages and bring income back to the Delta, helping to address employment gaps.”

Post-Covid data indicates that the Delta area, like other parts of the state, has experienced a population decline. Despite this, a talent pool remains in the region. 

“Our goal is to ensure this pool is well-trained and prepared to meet current and future workforce demands,” said Gatewood. “We are collaborating with local high school career and technical centers by providing essential equipment for their training programs, such as industrial maintenance, welding and HVAC. Our aim is to equip students with the skills needed to enter the workforce directly after graduation or to continue their education at a local community college, earning a technical certificate or associate degree.” 

Low unemployment rates can provide the opportunity for workers to potentially move up the ladder into a better-paying job with more prospects for advancement. Gatewood said as long as the current workforce is willing to upskill, there are opportunities for advancement. 

“I’m aware of one local industry that successfully promotes from within by partnering with a community college for training,” she said. “This upskilling leads to promotions and salary increases, benefiting both the employer and the employees.”

Gatewood said AccelerateMS is committed to collaborating with training providers, including community colleges and higher education institutions, to ensure they have the necessary instructors and equipment to meet the skills demanded by local employers. 

“Thanks to additional funding from our legislature, we are expanding our Career Coaching program,” said Gatewood. “This initiative places a career coach in nearly every high school within my service area, providing students with one-on-one guidance to explore a variety of high-skill occupations. The fall of 2024 marks the second full school term for this program, and we look forward to seeing the tangible outcomes of our Career Coaches’ efforts. Additionally, we are partnering with the South Delta Planning & Development District to develop strategies for meeting the talent expansion needs of our local industries.”

Gatewood encourages any employer with concerns about local talent to reach out to her. “Together, we can devise a strategy—if one isn’t already in place—to meet those talent needs,” she said. “I also urge any unemployed or underemployed reader to take advantage of the training opportunities offered through our local community college’s workforce department or Career Technical Center. There are a wealth of opportunities for people to gain skills, positioning themselves to not only help their own career prospects but also contribute to building a more qualified workforce in our region.

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