PITTSFIELD -- When North Adams Regional Hospital closed in late March, it was expected the loss of one of the county's major employers would create havoc with the local unemployment rate.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. Berkshire unemployment has been slowly descending since January, and has now reached its lowest level in six years.
The local jobless rate fell almost a full percentage point in May to 5.4 percent, according to state figures released on Tuesday. It's the first time the Berkshire unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent since November 2008,when it was 5.5 percent. It is the lowest the local rate has been since it hit 4.9 percent in October 2008, according to Heather Boulger, the executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.
Berkshire unemplyment is still slightly higher than the seasonally unadjusted state rate of 5.2 percent (the state's seasonally adjusted rate is 5.6 percent), and almost a percentage point lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.3 percent. The numbers released Tuesday by the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development are not seasonally adjusted, which means they take into account seasonal construction jobs and positions in the travel and tourism industry.
The good news, according to Boulger, is that May's Berkshire unemployment rate is almost a point and a half lower than the 6.8 percent registered in May 2013. However, Boulger said last month's numbers also show a drop of 1,300 workers in the county's total labor force during the last 12 months, which siginifies that more county residents have either dropped out of the employment system entirely, or have moved out of the Berkshires.
"The number of long-term unemployed and underemployed are not being counted," said Boulger, referring to the Berkshire County numbers. Citing figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Boulger said the country's underemployment rate, those taking either part-time work or jobs outside of their fields, is 12.2 percent. Those figures aren't broken down by county, but Boulger said based on the national figures she believes the underemployment rate in the Berkshires is around 10.8 percent.
"That's only a guess though," she said. "It's not a solid number."
Boulger said the impact that NARH's closing had on the local unemployment rate is reflected in the state's latest numbers, but added, "something is offsetting it."
"Either more people are dropping out of the labor force, or they're becoming employed," she said. "Construction and travel and tourism tend to hire in May. They may not be all hospital employees. ...The majority of people have either been hired for seasonal employment, or through growth with local companies."
Boulger said no Berkshire job sector showed an unusual increase in jobs last month.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi was encouraged by the numbers, but said he'd like to have a better understanding about what they really signify.
"It's hard to dive into them with any sort of certainity," Bianchi said. "I think we have do just that.
"We want to know where the movement has been. What sectors are doing really well and why."
The number of Berkshire residents collecting unemployment benefits, which is how the state calculates the number of unemployed county workers, is 3,791, the lowest figure in at least 13 months. The county's total labor force and number of employed also increased in May.The number of employed county residents rose by 1,129 workers in May, after falling by 227 employees in April.
Unemployment is also down in the North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington labor market areas. Unemployment in the Great Barrington and North Adams areas dropped a full percentage point in May to 3.6 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively. Unemployment in the Pittsfield area fell to 5.7 percent in May from 6.5 percent.
The jobless rate in the Berkshire's two cities also dropped in May, but not as significantly as the county rate. Unemployment in North Adams dropped half a percentage point to 7.9 percent, the lowest number in over a year. In Pittsfield, the rate dropped to 6.0 percent from 6.6 percent, also the lowest rate in more than a year. In May 2013, the jobless rate in North Adams was 8.9 percent, while the unemployment rate in Pittsfield was 7.8 percent.
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