The April 14 edition of this newspaper printed 101 help wanted advertisements (some for multiple positions) and two available apartments. Prospective homebuyers are facing low inventory and high prices. A dearth of housing options makes it hard to recruit employees outside commuting distance and commuting has gotten more expensive as gas prices rise. Without growing the labor pool, hiring means shuffling the existing workforce or re-engaging individuals who have left it.
In March, Hancock and Washington counties had among the highest unemployment rates in the state at 5.7 and 6.5 percent, respectively, but those numbers are not seasonally adjusted. The tourism and agricultural sectors in particular are highly seasonal. To better compare apples to apples, let’s look at the same month over the past five years. In Hancock County, the unemployment rate was the same as March 2020 — just at the cusp of the pandemic lockdowns — and down significantly from the 7 percent rate this time in 2021. Still, it is higher than the rate in March of 2019 and 2018, when unemployment was 4.8 percent. It is comparable to the 2017 rate of 5.6 percent.
In a February report, the state’s Economic Forecasting Commission noted lower labor force participation overall, particularly among those age 55 and older and mothers of young children.
With a relatively small pool of jobseekers and not all of them qualified for employers’ needs, hiring continues to be a challenge.
Statewide, the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, down from 4.8 percent last year. Hourly earnings averaged $28.50 statewide. Private sector earnings increased 5.9 percent in the 12 months through March.
Those income gains may have been less perceptible given the pace of inflation. The Consumer Price Index increased 8.5 percent over the past year — the largest jump since 1981. Gas, grocery and housing costs led the charge. The energy index leapt 32 percent over the last year, fuel oil 70.1 percent and food prices 8.8 percent. Some households have gone from scraping by to falling behind. The Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry saw an 18 percent increase in usage in March.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently told CNBC that “we’re likely to see another year in which 12-month inflation numbers remain very uncomfortably high.” Meanwhile the Federal Reserve is trying to slow things down and prevent a recession by raising interest rates. The full ramifications of the war in Ukraine on commodity prices and supply chains remain to play out.
What are ordinary people to do about it all? Well, at the individual level they can do what macrolevel policies such as raising interest rates aim to achieve — reduce the amount of circulating money. For low- to middle-income Americans, whose budgets are heavily weighted toward necessities, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to reduce spending. Those with dispensable income should consider channeling a greater percentage into savings as a cushion against harder times.
And it’s not all doom and gloom. Low unemployment is a good thing. The U.S. added 678,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent. Wages are up. The projected state surplus is so high that the Governor has proposed $850 relief checks for Mainers to help them offset rising costs. The housing market is hot because this is a desirable place to live. If the Fed can course correct from stimulating the economy to tempering inflation, growing fears about a recession would ebb. Then we could get back to working on ways to right-size local economic growth, including increasing housing and educating and attracting more skilled workers.