Economists seem to love bad news. Just watch cable TV and you will know what I mean. They delight in reporting on signs of a future downturn or seem almost giddy trying to explain why good economic news isn’t as good as it seems. That’s not the reason economics is called the “dismal science”, but it contributes to its gloomy reputation. However, when it comes to our economy, here in Stafford and for that matter throughout much of Northern Virginia there isn’t much bad news. Even the local economists seem to agree. We are in the midst of a boom. Not a short expansion lasting just a few months or a year or so, but a sustained, month-by-month and year-by-year period of growth.
As someone who reported on the effects of the Great Recession in our area, it’s a refreshing economic picture. In those days my economic reports were about high unemployment, foreclosed homes and the closing or downsizing of businesses.
But, not anymore. Last week, Virginia reported that its statewide unemployment rate dropped to 2.9%. That’s one of the lowest rates ever. What’s more, the number of people employed has grown every month for the past 63 months. This represents the effect of a lot of factors. For one, it’s indicative of a growth in the number of people entering the workforce to include new arrivals and people who might have left the workforce, but are now reentering it.
Just to give you an idea of how economists interpret unemployment data they tend to consider anything 4% or below to be full employment. At this level joblessness is often referred to as “frictional unemployment.” This means that most of the unemployed are between jobs, relocating, taking time out for school, having a family or perhaps going back to school. When the rate drops below 4% it usually means, in addition to full employment, there is also probably a labor shortage. Looking at want ads and reports in the area’s various online business reporting outlets, that seems to be the case.
Locally, the unemployment rates are astoundingly good. Stafford’s unemployment, like Virginia’s is 2.9%, Prince William is 2.6% and Loundon and Fairfax each report 2.4%. The highest unemployment rate was in Dickenson County, in southwest Virginia, which reported an unemployment rate of 5.1%.
Stafford is an interesting case. It sits just beyond most of the major employment centers. That means a lot of its workforce has to commute, mostly north, for good jobs. Out of a population of around 140,000, the county has 68,000 employed. That’s an unusually high percentage of employed people for any community. Stafford’s single population is relatively low, meaning we have a lot of two income families. But it begs the question, what do all these people do?
A rule of thumb used for many years is that roughly a third of the area’s workforce is employed by the federal government. Needless to say, most of these people commute a fairly long distance. However, many federal employees in the area aren’t commuting quite as far as they used to. Over the past 10 years, several large government organizations, as well as many smaller ones, mostly related to defense and law enforcement, have moved to Quantico and Fort Belvoir.
In terms of what people do, one source cites 13,800 as working in public administration of some kind. Some 8,000 are professional, scientific or technical employees and another 8,000 work in the health or social services fields. With this kind of distribution, in what are generally considered well-paying jobs, it’s easy to see why Stafford, and our surrounding communities, have some of the highest income levels in the country.
Stafford has also been successful in persuading a number of white-collar businesses, mostly government contractors, to locate in the county. This is an on-going trend and has brought about a substantial change in the character of the community. More people are working locally at well-paying jobs.
Alright, it’s time to play economist. What’s the downside? In this case, it’s an old refrain. As the county attracts more people, housing is going to become a problem. Its already become difficult for first responders, teachers and young people just starting their careers to find a place to live. That’s only going to get worse. Also, schools — many approaching or over capacity — fire and rescue services — seriously strained — will keep feeling the pinch. These problems can’t be neglected. Still , as someone who has covered an economy in near freefall, and that was an unpleasant experience, it’s so much more fun to report on an economy that’s growing and healthy.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.