By HALEY GABLE
Capital News Service
LANSING – While the state unemployment rate dropped between December 2016 and last December, joblessness rose in many Northern Michigan counties.
The unemployment rate improved from 5.1 percent to 4.7 during that time statewide, but more than half of the counties experienced higher rates, according to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
Most are northern counties, including the top five: Mackinac, Cheboygan, Montmorency, Alger and Schoolcraft.
Economic analyst Jim Rhein said isolation plays a big role in higher unemployment rates in rural areas, not only in Michigan but nationwide.
“In a rural area if you lose your job, there is not that much variation in the job market,” said Rhein, who works for Technology, Management and Budget.
If a job does open up, it may not be close or convenient enough, he said. That makes commuting difficult, especially in the winter when roads are often slippery.
During winter, unemployment rates are higher in northern counties, he said. That’s because the majority of the local economy is supported by agriculture and tourism, which peak in the summer. Thus in the spring and summer, rates are closer to the state rate, said Rhein.
To create a more stable economy and job market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development helps rural regions expand economically.
“Our organization is focused to assist rural communities, entrepreneurs and citizens develop and expand based on their needs,” said Jason Allen, the state director of the federal program.
The agency invested $36.5 million in rural Michigan businesses, according to its 2016 progress report.
Providing economic opportunity is the solution to reducing unemployment, said Alec Lloyd, the Rural Development public information coordinator.
“The goal is helping rural economies find their strengths,” he said.
To accomplish that goal, Rural Development supports local producers in adding value to their products by starting businesses such as breweries, wineries and cider mills through Value-Added Producer Grants.
Value-added activity covers a range of possibilities for agricultural producers, from a farmer branding raw products as local to a vineyard producing its own wine.
These grants help agricultural producers bring in more profit by generating new products that will attract new customers and tourists, rather than selling their products as just a commodity.
That allows producers to exponentially increase the value of their products and invest that value back into the local economy, generating economic benefits and growth, Lloyd said.
There are also regional-specific organizations to assist in job searching.
For example, Northwest Michigan Works! offers free services such as career planning and workshops designed to match people’s interests and skills with similar jobs nearby.
Michigan Works! says its goal is to “evaluate a job seekers’ strengths and skills, help them create or update their resume, sharpen interview skills and more.”
The agency serves 10 counties: Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford.
It provides a public resource room in each service center that can be used for job searching, and a bulletin board displaying job openings. Career advisors offer individualized help.
Regional operations manager Kathy Taylor said its adult learning labs help people who may not have finished their education to bring their skill level up, giving them more employment opportunities.
The labs offer GED preparation and other basic educational skills.