It’s no secret the Rockford metro area has the highest unemployment rate in the state. That drum gets beaten in nearly every local political speech and within the first three sentences of any outside media story featuring the Rock River Valley.
The rate’s been the highest among Illinois metro areas since February 2008, when Kankakee topped us with a then-high 8.8 percent. (Rockford’s rate was 8.1 percent at the time, just three months into the recession.) Since I’ve been covering the local employment situation, it’s been the highest by a wide margin, and even now with a soft recovery under way it’s still tops by several percentage points.
After digging through data going back to 1976, however, I found out something surprising: we’re usually a distant second in the who’s-the-highest race.
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The Danville metro area has posted the highest rate in the state a whopping 237 months, or nearly 20 years, since January 1976. (The totals include a couple of ties.) So why has Rockford been tops in this most recent recession?
“Our proportion of manufacturing work continues to make us vulnerable,” said Joel Cowen, assistant dean of health systems research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. Cowen said around one-quarter of our jobs are in that sector.
“As manufacturing declined, it’s been a real downward trend for employment,” he said.
Our 29-month stretch with the highest unemployment rate in the state is Rockford’s longest run of consecutive months I can find in my data. Danville was the highest in the state for 55 months starting in September 1986. (Yes, we’re the ones who broke that streak: Danville’s rate was 8.7 percent, ours was 9.2.)
Interesting stuff — but even as Cowen said, sometimes a statistic is just a statistic.
“There’s a lot in economics that’s random,” he said. “I would expect that there will be a time where someone beats us again.”
(Standard disclaimer: The unemployment rate measures the share of jobless individuals in the labor force (the sum of employed and unemployed people) and not the entire population. Those who are unemployed but not actively looking for work are not considered part of the labor force. The unemployment rate is not the same measurement as those collecting unemployment benefits. A person who exhausts or is ineligible for unemployment insurance still would be reflected in the unemployment rate if he or she is seeking employment.)