Unemployment rate rises in Pine Bluff area

Pine Bluff’s unemployment rate in July rose to 11.6 percent from a 10.7 percent mark in June, according to the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.

Pine Bluff had the second highest unemployment rate among Arkansas cities last month, behind West Memphis at 11.9 percent. The cities with the lowest unemployment rates last month were Bentonville and Springdale at 4.7 percent, according to the department.

Jefferson County’s unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent in July from a 9 percent reading in June. Both Pine Bluff and Jefferson County had a higher percentage of unemployed people than Arkansas as a whole, which saw a 6.2 unemployment rate in July, the same as the previous month, the department said.

The Arkansas county with the highest July unemployment rate was Crittenden County at 10.3 percent and the county with the lowest unemployment rate was Carroll County at 4.5 percent in July, according to the department.

Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, said she did not hear about any businesses closing in the city in July. To the contrary, she said she is working with seven industries that are looking to add jobs. For instance, these industries are looking to upgrade manufacturing equipment or expand their buildings, she said.

She said the labor market needs to see welders, plumbers, engineers, electricians and people trained in industrial and mechanical maintenance. Many of these occupations have people ages 50 and older including those nearing retirement, she said. As a result, these occupations have openings, she said.

“I think we will see more jobs created in the near future,” Nisbett said. “[Pine Bluff’s unemployment rate rising in July] could be attributed to a lot of different factors such as people heading back to school. … There are jobs available out there. The question is matching skilled laborers with existing jobs.”

Toward that end, Nisbett said people can enroll at Southeast Arkansas College or the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Nisbett said she is also expecting an influx in construction jobs beginning this fall related to Highland Pellets Inc.’s announcement that it will spend $130 million to build a plant in the Jefferson Industrial Park. As reported last week, Highland Pellets Chairman and Co-founder Tom Reilley said the new plant is expected to create 35 direct jobs and an additional 482 indirect jobs, and have a direct economic impact of $86 million annually.