Arizona has higher unemployment than most neighboring states

Arizona’s unemployment rate of 4.7% is low by historical standards, but neighboring states are doing even better. That is according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks unemployment across the country.

California (3.9%), Nevada (4%), Utah (2.4%), and Colorado (2.6%) all posted lower unemployment figures than Arizona in November 2019, which is the most recent month for which the statistics are available. Only New Mexico (4.8%) had a slightly higher rate of unemployment.

A deeper dive into the numbers offers some insight. According to a Brookings Institution study released last year, 23% of young people in the Phoenix areas, ages 18-25, who are seeking work, cannot find it.

“Look, the economy is booming. Most people feel that. But what they don’t see, I’ve seen it out knocking on doors, just meeting folks. There are people at home doing nothing because they don’t have the basic skills,” said Rep. Aaron Lieberman, a Democrat from Paradise Valley.

Lieberman believes part of the problem is the big cut in education funding that occurred over the past ten years. “The truth of the matter is we’ve underfunded our education system for a long time,” he said.

That doesn’t just apply to K-12 education. Funding for community colleges and the state’s three public universities was also reduced in the past decade, making it increasingly difficult for even middle-class young people to afford higher education.

“You can’t really get a job now without a degree, and it’s really hard to pay for a degree,” said Ana Rodriguez. She graduated from high school in rural Arizona, then enrolled at Northern Arizona University. But family problems and financial constraints forced her to drop out after her first year. “I didn’t want to go (home), but I had to,” she said.

Rodriguez says she still wanted to pursue her goal of working in the medical field, but the training programs she found cost as much as $15,000. Then she discovered the Phoenix Job Corps Center, which is funded by the US Department of Labor.

“They help you find a job. They give you the skills that you need. And also, they kind of make you believe that you can go do what you initially wanted to do,” said Rodriguez.

Now, she is a month away from graduating and earning a salary that may help her afford to re-enroll at a four-year university.

“We’re like a one stop. We provide the education, the training, the healthcare, the housing – all in one location,” said Roxanne Chin, who is the Center director. Chin says the Center provides services for 364 people, ages 16 to 24.

“Our young people are almost forgotten. If we don’t start to develop them, if we don’t start to train them on how important it is to become an expert, then who will?” asked Chin.

But there are more young people in need of training than there are spots at Phoenix Job Corps. Some estimates put the number of unemployed youth in Arizona as high as 125,000. The problem is not a lack of job openings.

“The trades are not promoted like they should be with our youth. The challenge we have, as a company, is really reaching that 16 to 24-year-old to fill our aging workforce,” said Joshua Echols, who works for Century Group. The company connects natural gas lines to homes across the country and recently partnered with Job Corps to train and hire employees.

Governor Doug Ducey mentioned increasing funding for training for trades and community colleges during his State of the State Address. Lieberman says that was a good start, but believes the state will need to invest more than the governor is proposing to make a difference.