In a departure from several years ago, Martinsville and Henry County’s unemployment rates are at a combined 3.3 percent.
Mark Heath, the Director of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation, said in October, the last number on record, the unemployment rate in the county was 2.9 percent. This is down from 3.8 percent in October of 2021. In Martinsville, the unemployment rate in October was 4.9 percent. The national unemployment rate currently sits at 3.7 percent.
Heath said there are a few factors contributing to the low unemployment rate, one of which is automation.
“There’s just a lot of factors that go into that, but automation is having something of a role in unemployment, not just here but everywhere,” Heath said. “A lot of companies are automating. They’re putting more investments into machines, which require less people. That has something to do, that’s more of a national and international type situation.”
There also have been many different companies that have come to the area, expanded, or are hiring in large numbers, he said.
“We’ve had some fairly decent success over the past three or four years, actually, pretty consistent with new companies coming. We’ve had several existing companies that are hiring. We’ve had a lot of companies who have had a high number of open positions over the last six to 12 months who have filled those positions,” Heath said. “I think that’s part of” the low number of those who are unemployed.
He cited Crown Moldings as one example, noting that it is “the most recent plant to start up here, and it’s almost a $200 million investment. There are 125 jobs there so that’s the new model also.”
However, Heath believes the low unemployment rate mostly can be attributed to “the backfilling of a lot of jobs that have been open for a while.”
When it comes to where the jobs are in the area, Heath said the area has “a diversified labor force that’s fully staffed right now.” There is a lot of variation between the companies that are among the largest employers in the county.
“Eastman would be probably the largest” employer, Heath said. “They’ve got roughly 850 people and five different plant locations. Monogram Foods is large, they’re at about 600.”
Other companies also are large, including Drake Extrusion and Georgia Pacific, Heath said. “There’s just a number of companies that have fairly high employment rates. Applied Felts is another company that has a good number of employees.”
He also mentioned VF as a company that has added people and equipment over the past year or so.
The low unemployment rate and competitive job market also has had many positive effects on the community, according to Heath.
Besides the obvious impact of more people being employed, it has driven up hourly wages and given employees more money to spend in the community, supporting businesses and other organizations.
“The most positive effect is that it’s helping to raise the hourly wage rates,” Heath said. “There’s more competition for labor. Companies are improving their pay and benefit packages, which helps the community overall.
“That gives people more spendable income and allows people to buy homes and cars and pay for the necessities you have for the family. So, a lot of things like that are taking effect,” Heath said.
Wages in some positions have risen more than 60 percent over the past four years, according to Heath.
“Some of the wages we’ve had over the past four years have really gone up to where there’s a number of companies that are paying $25 an hour or more for particular jobs,” he said. “Four or five years ago, those jobs were in the $15 to $16 an hour range. So, there’s been some positive upward momentum in wage rates.”