Yuma 'paradox' on jobs has long been a mystery
I have long been mystified by Yuma County's economy, and I am sure I'm not alone.
I'm no economist but conditions ought to be dismal here with unemployment now hovering around 30 percent. That's a lot of people out of work for it not to be more obvious to everyone, but it really isn't on a day-to-day basis.
There was one recent example which did seem to confirm our unemployment problem. There were more than 3,000 people lined up to talk with potential employers at a Yuma Private Industry Council job fair in late August here.
One person said he had been unemployed for three years. At the same time some employers say they have jobs but can't find the right people to fill them. In some cases the jobs are in other areas, presenting a problem for those who want to remain in Yuma.
Some applicants at the job fair said they didn't have the skills to get the jobs that are available. This is an ongoing problem not only here but across the nation where the persistent unemployment is sometimes blamed on the mismatch of available jobs with people who lack skills. Observers believe correcting that gap is critical to the nation's prosperity.
Still, if you look around our community, other factors don't seem to confirm the huge jobless number, which should be about 30,000 people.
Many merchants seem to have activity in their stores and people continue to eat out, at least when it comes to fast food restaurants. Even in some of the up-scale restaurants there seem to be a lot of cars in the parking lots. Grocery stores and supermarkets seem to be busy and checkout carts are full. People still go to the movies and attend entertainment events, “luxuries” you might think would be eliminated.
I image the amount of activity isn't as high as it may have been in the past, but many people don't seem to be huddled in their homes counting pennies either.
And if you look at other recent Yuma County economy news, indicators actually seem pretty good.
Here are some things we have reported recently:
• City of Yuma sales tax revenue this year is the best since the start of the Great Recession in 2008. That means people are spending more money.
• There is substantial building activity taking place and more is coming. It includes significantly increased home building so far this year, which pretty much came to a standstill during the recession, as well as new commercial construction. Projects that had long been on hold have now restarted. This is a sign of optimism about our economy.
• New businesses are looking at Yuma and deciding to come here, including a call center that says it will eventually employ 750 people. The initial hiring process for the call center is already under way.
• Major expansion of the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma here is under way to accommodate the newest jet fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Force. It is spurring major economic activity in the community.
You would think things would be more restrained in the local economy with unemployment at Great Depression levels. But from what I see, it just isn't.
This economic confusion is nothing new. I grew up here in Yuma and have spent much of my working life here. As far as I can remember there has always been a big unemployment problem here — according to the job statistics — especially in the summer months when the economy typically slows down.
Our unemployment numbers have for many years been significantly higher than for much of the rest of the state, and the nation, for that matter. If we ever reach the same average as the state or the nation, everyone would probably collapse out of shock.
A recent story we ran in the newspaper looked at the Yuma “paradox” of a community that has grown and continues to grow despite seemingly staggering unemployment numbers. Many other communities with high unemployment have not had the same experience. Instead they are stagnating and being depopulated as people move away to find jobs.
Those quoted in the story speculated it was the seasonal nature of agriculture, which is the primary economic driver. Tourism, the second major economic factor here, is also very seasonal. This seasonality has traditionally been cited for the “paradox.” And retail sales are partially driven by shoppers who actually live in Mexico and not here.
Also cited was a lack of educational attainment and skills in the workforce which limits their employment opportunities.
There was also speculation the numbers are simply wrong and that part of the reason may be fraud. People are actually working, perhaps outside the state, but claiming they are unemployed to collect undeserved benefits. I hope that isn't the case.
A state official responsible for reporting the numbers just shrugged and said they can't explain the disparity (they have been doing that for many years). The official essentially said Yuma just wasn't like other places and what is abnormal elsewhere is normal here.
All I know is that I have lived here much of my adult life with a background of prosperity existing at the same time as there is high unemployment, and it still mystifies me.
Terry Ross is director of the Yuma Sun's News and Information Center. Email: email@example.com. Telephone: 539-6870.