The jobless rate in Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton jumped to 15.7 percent, a 9.3 percentage point increase in the area located about 60 miles northwest of Charlotte. About one-third of all jobs in Hickory are at manufacturing plants, said Scott Millar, director of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp., which recruits new businesses.You pretty much figure the U-6 total for the area is well above 20% and approaching 25%, which would be Depression-era numbers. A nearly 10% jump in just plain reported unemployment in 12 months is devastating, but this part of NC has arguably the last broad-based manufacturing plants in the country. Many different types of plants made it a solid town to grow up in during the 70's and 80's. In the 90's, when the cable manufacturing plants and the dot-com boom came, the area really took off. We got a minor league baseball team, a new science and arts center and a new library, made some national headlines as a new center of manufacturing in the Clinton years.
"I think part of the issue we're dealing with is pure math as the nation changes into a services oriented economy," Millar said.
The local layoffs accelerated at furniture makers and textile producers that have been shifting work to low-cost overseas producers for a decade, and at auto suppliers battered by slumping car sales. Even the fiber-optic cable manufacturers that once seemed to be the region's hope are suffering from a lack of orders. Corning Cable Systems in February said it would eliminate about 200 jobs as it shut an optical assembly plant in Hickory.
Then the textile plants closed, the GE generator plant moved to Mexico, the cable plants got hurt badly when the dot-com bubble crashed and with the housing markets and the auto markets dead and gone, the last holdovers of auto parts makers and furniture plants are dying too. I lived there as recently as three years ago. Boom times even then as new housing developments, lots of work, low unemployment, international companies like Corning Cable and Getrag Gears and all the furniture plants were filling those shiny new homes across America that people couldn't afford with furniture they couldn't afford either. Those places needed IT work done, and I was good at it. Now? Unemployment has nearly tripled in one year. I guess in hindsight when the small business I worked for got bought out and I was laid off, I was lucky. I got a head start here in the Cincy area.
Hickory is going to be a very, very different place another 12 months from now. I wouldn't be surprised if the U-3 rate hit 20% before the end of the year, meaning the U-6 would be pushing 30%. Unemployment on that scale will lead to mass emigration out to other areas of the country, it's simply unsustainable. People will just move away and look for work elsewhere. That will almost certainly lead to another wave of rising unemployment as commercial and service jobs are cut to meet the new lower demand across the board. Lower property tax revenues, fewer services, abandoned property all over the place.
It's ripe for a ghost town scenario. Things will be a lot worse soon. Of course, it's a lot worse everywhere.
And it'll be a long, long time before things get better.