New numbers show government jobs are the biggest losers in Lawrence; statewide job numbers also released

It’s campaign season, so you certainly will hear people grumbling about the topic of what government is good for. Well, in Lawrence it has become clear what it is not good for: Job growth.

The latest employment numbers from the state of Kansas show that the Lawrence metro area — i.e. Douglas County — has lost about 2,500 jobs since September 2019. More than 1,000 of the job losses have come from the government sector, which includes University of Kansas employees, plus local school districts, city and county governments and various federal and state offices located in the county.

The September 2020 report from the Kansas Department of Labor showed Lawrence lost 1,100 jobs in the government sector over the last 12 months. That’s a decline of 6.7%. It also is the second largest decline in the state. Manhattan had the worst decline in Kansas, which might be an indication that university jobs really are at more risk than several other types of government jobs, currently.

Here’s a look at how much each metro area in Kansas has lost in terms of government jobs since September 2019:

• Manhattan: down 12%, 1,700 fewer jobs

• Lawrence: down 6.7%, 1,100 fewer jobs

• Kansas City: down 4%, 2,400 fewer jobs

• Topeka: down 3.8%, 1,000 fewer jobs

• Wichita: down 2.4%, 1,000 fewer jobs

A couple of things stand out from those numbers. While Kansas State is likely to have more football wins than KU this year, Lawrence doesn’t want to be in Manhattan’s boat. If Lawrence were to have a 12% loss in government jobs, we’d be looking at nearly another 900 job losses.

The second interesting point is that non-university, state government jobs apparently haven’t been hit nearly as hard as university jobs have been. At least that is one plausible reading of the Topeka job numbers compared to the job numbers in Lawrence and Manhattan. The state provides data that specifically measures the number of state jobs located in the Topeka metro area. In September, there were about 8,700 state jobs in the metro area, basically unchanged from a year ago. That was nearly the case in Kansas City and Wichita as well. State government jobs were down only 200 in Wichita, and actually were up by 300 positions on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro area.

The news in Lawrence isn’t all bad, though. The decline in private sector jobs in Lawrence hasn’t been quite as steep as it has been statewide. Private sector jobs across Kansas are down by 4.3%, compared to September 2019. In Lawrence, they are down by 3.4%, or about 1,300 positions.

In fact, there is one category that has posted pretty strong job growth. Retail jobs in Lawrence are up 7%, or about 400 positions, since September 2019. That’s well above the growth rate for the state. In fact, Lawrence’s numbers were the best in the state. I’m not sure why that would be, but it is worth noting that those good times may be receding. Lawrence lost about 100 retail jobs from August to September, the state report shows.

Not surprisingly, the hardest hit area of the Lawrence job market — at least by percentage — is the leisure and hospitality sector. That includes bartenders, wait staff, hotel clerks and other such jobs. Lawrence jobs in that sector have fallen by 9.7%, or about 700 positions since September 2019. Somewhat surprisingly though, Lawrence’s hospitality sector has fared better than the state’s as a whole. Statewide, the leisure and hospitality sector has lost 13.1% of its jobs — or about 17,000 positions — from a year ago.

Add up the government job losses and the private sector job losses, and Lawrence finished just a bit worse than the statewide average. Here’s a look at total job losses, seasonally adjusted for those of you who care about such details, for each metro area in the state.

• Manhattan: down 6.9%, 2,900 fewer jobs

• Wichita: down 4.7%, 14,500 fewer jobs

• Lawrence: down 4.7%, 2,500 fewer jobs

• Topeka: down 4.2%, 4,700 fewer jobs

• Kansas City: down 3.8%, 18,400 fewer jobs.

• Statewide: down 4.4%, 63,000 fewer jobs.

Here’s a look at some other facts and figures from the state’s most recent labor report:

• Lawrence/Douglas County’s unemployment rate was 5.5% in September. That is up from 2.5% in September 2019. However, it is down from 7.2% in August. Indeed, more people are working in September than in August, but that was entirely expected. It would have been a catastrophic sign if employment didn’t grow in September, given that is the first full month of employment for many school employees.

• The statewide unemployment rate also was 5.5%, up from 2.7% a year ago. Wichita had the highest metro unemployment rate at 8.0%, while Manhattan had the lowest at 4.3%. Nearby, Topeka was at 5.3% and Kansas City (only the Kansas side of the metro area) had a rate of 5.2%.

• Perhaps the Manhattan numbers confuse you. In the first half of this article, I reported the Manhattan metro had the largest percentage decline in jobs. Now, I’m reporting its unemployment rate is the lowest of any of the state’s metro areas. Both are correct. The job numbers measure how many jobs are actually located inside the metro area. The unemployment rate doesn’t measure job positions but rather measures people. It counts how many people in a metro area have a job, regardless of where that job is located.

Still, it is strange that the Manhattan numbers are so different on those two fronts. But looking more closely at the numbers, there is one possible explanation. Manhattan has a lot fewer job-seekers than it did a year ago. Manhattan’s civilian labor force has shrunk by about 5% or about 2,500 people compared to a year ago. That measures how many people actually are of age and looking for work. Lawrence’s civilian labor force is also down, but not nearly much. It is off by about 1.5% or about 950 people.

In a phrase that has been uttered before: Something strange is afoot in Manhattan.


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