James Robson, a regional economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has been collecting and analyzing economic data on Tooele County for years. Although it’s part of his job, he takes particular interest in the ebb and flow of our county’s economic hydraulics.
What is it about our area that fascinates him? A lion’s share of the local workforce — estimated at 40 to even 50 percent since the mid- to late-1990s — doesn’t earn a paycheck here. Like a religious pilgrimage, every weekday morning thousands of residents plop into their cars, or into a seat on a UTA bus, and head east to Salt Lake County. When the sun sets, they come back home and repeat the trip hours later — not in the name of prayer, but in struggle for legal tender.
All those years of gathering and analyzing our job numbers makes Robson a highly credible, go-to resource for why things are the way they are, and what may lie ahead economically for Tooele County. So when Robson said recently in the Transcript-Bulletin that he predicts the county’s job market this year and beyond will further shrink instead of improve, it pinged loudly in our ears. We hope local government, economic, business and education leaders heard it loudly, too. In fact we hope it’s ringing in their eardrums like irritating tinnitus. It sure is for us.
In a Jan. 31 article headlined, “Jobless rate dropped during 2012,” it was reported the county’s unemployment rate was 6.2 percent last year. Although it was the first in three years in which the local rate had dropped, it was still above the state’s 2012 average of 5.7 percent — and well above the county’s 20-year average of 5.4 percent.
Furthermore, there were only three months during the entire year in which job growth happened in Tooele County, and none of them occurred during the year’s final quarter from October through December. Specifically on that point, Robson said: “The labor market outlook in Tooele County for the next few years is contraction with the ongoing employment reduction from closing DCD (Deseret Chemical Depot).” However, he somewhat tempered that bleak outlook with, “The current relative strength in the Salt Lake County labor market should provide support to Tooele County residents during this transition.”
In a follow-up interview since that story was published, Robson said further review of local job market data indicates Tooele County may see a 1 to 1.2 percent growth factor this year. Yet, he cautioned, such improvement relies on several factors; if they don’t play out in the county’s favor, “you could easily see it swing the other way.”
As our county works to rebuild job strength after the Great Recession (the county’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in 2009 and 2010), what makes Robson’s prediction particularly worrisome is our reliance on Salt Lake County to keep our jobless rate from going stratospheric. If it weren’t for our close proximity to the Wasatch Front, that rate would be much higher. Although our reliance on Salt Lake County for employing so many of our residents is deeply entrenched and does offer job diversity, in the long term we find that dependence unhealthy and fraught with uncertainty.
Local officials are urged to not only continue, but also multiply ongoing strategic efforts to attract broad categories of business and industry. Such enterprises must be compatible with our area, provide sustainable employment, infuse the economy with real dollars, and boost a flagging tax base. And officials are urged to do so with a united “you win/we win” spirit that serves the entire Tooele County community — not just a few municipalities. This will build the county’s economic vitality for greater workforce independence.