Latest job numbers show Lawrence still not bouncing back as much as the rest of the state

At first glance, it looks like Kansas’ job market has largely rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest numbers from the state’s labor department. But there are dark corners in the state where that’s not true, and you’ll find Lawrence in one of those corners.

The positive headline number for the state is that the unemployment rate was down to 3.5% in January, according to a recently released report. That’s down from 4.7% in December. But the more encouraging news is 3.5% is nearly in line with the 3.1% rate from January 2020. In other words, the state is only four-tenths of a percentage point from where it was pre-pandemic.

If you just want the good news, stop here. Otherwise, know that Kansas labor numbers are a bit like a seven-layer dip — the deeper you dig, the more uncertain you become.

When you start looking at the actual number of jobs in Kansas, those figures show a decline of 68,000 positions from a year ago. That’s a reduction of 4.8%. That picture doesn’t look as rosy as the one above.

But, it is all relative because Lawrence right now would gladly take those numbers. The job loss rate in Lawrence and Douglas County is more than twice as high as the statewide rate. Lawrence has lost 9.8% of its jobs from a year ago. In real numbers, there are 5,100 fewer jobs in Douglas County now than in January 2020.

So, yes, Lawrence is in a dark corner. But sometimes there are dark corners within those dark corners. (Apologies, this is starting to sound like the plot of a Matrix movie.) In other words, an area that is really hurting in Lawrence more than in other parts of the state is the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes bars, restaurants, and hotel workers.

There were 1,300 fewer such workers in Douglas County in January 2021 than in January 2020. That’s a 20% reduction. Statewide, the leisure and hospitality industry is down 15.9%. Lawrence is on the wrong side of that average. What’s more interesting about the numbers, though, is the trend. I went back and looked at what we reported for November job totals. We reported the leisure and hospitality industry in Lawrence was down 800 jobs or about 11%. By January, that total was more than 1,000 lost jobs, and the job loss rate was nearly double a couple of months earlier. That’s not heading in the right direction.

The one bright spot from the November numbers also has darkened. In November, retail jobs were up by 200 positions from the same point a year ago. By January, retail jobs were down 400 positions, or 7%, from January 2020 totals.

One category that has been consistently dark has been government jobs. Lawrence and the other college community of Manhattan consistently have seen greater job losses in the government sector than other cities in Kansas. Lawrence has lost 1,900 government jobs, almost a 12% decline. Manhattan is at 2,700 government job losses, a 20% drop.

Compare those losses to Topeka at a 6.7% loss, or Wichita at 6.8%, or the Kansas City metro (Kansas side only) at a minuscule 0.7% loss for government jobs.

There were a couple of somewhat bright spots for Lawrence in the most recent report. The category of Professional and Business Services, which includes positions like scientific and tech jobs, corporate management positions and a host of other business administrative positions, was up by 200 jobs from a year ago, an increase of 3.9%. It was the only category in the county that posted job growth in the report. The next closest sector was the trade, transportation and utility sector. It was down only 100 jobs, or 1.4%, from a year ago.

What about Douglas County’s unemployment rate? It checked in at 6.1%. That’s up from 3.1% a year ago. Those numbers look a lot different from the statewide rate I quoted at the beginning of the article.

In fairness, though, I do need to explain. (It is kind of like the sixth layer of the dip. Is that green stuff guacamole or mashed peas?) The Douglas County rate is not seasonally adjusted. The statewide rate is. Kansas doesn’t provide a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for cities and metro areas. In other words, to make it an apples-to-apples comparison, we should look at the state’s non-seasonally adjusted rate. That statewide rate was 5.4%, up from 3.3% in January 2020.

I know, it is confusing. But no matter how you slice it, the numbers show that Lawrence is getting hit harder on the labor front than the state as a whole.


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