The Illinois Department of Employment Security released unemployment numbers for regions across the state this past week, and Kankakee County’s unemployment rate was up 1 percentage point from the previous year.
Unemployment in Kankakee County for December 2020 was 6.4 percent compared to 5.4 percent in 2019. Considering the country has been enduring a pandemic for more than 10 months, the numbers aren’t shocking.
“We haven’t been hit as hard as other areas in the state,” said Tim Nugent, executive director of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County. “It’s still too high but last year when things were normal, we were only one point lower. We’ve benefitted from the fact that we have a lot of essential businesses and a lot of manufacturing.”
Nugent said much of the county’s jobs are in food processing, steel manufacturing and pharmaceutical, and those area haven’t been hurt as bad as restaurants and the hospitality industry.
“Obviously, the hospitality industry is the one taking the hit,” he said. “That was what we were trying to expand on. Pre-pandemic we were trying to get more hotels and more restaurants down here. We still are, but those are the type of things that took a hit over the course of the pandemic.”
The hardest hit region in the state is the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights metropolitan statistical area which is at 8.7 percent compared to 2.8 percent in 2019.
Other areas December 2020 unemployment rates were Elgin, 6.5; Peoria, 6.8; Rockford, 7.3; and Danville 6.4. Even historically strong employment areas like Bloomington was at 5.2 percent, up from 3.3 percent in 2019, and Champaign-Urbana at 5 percent, up from 3.2 percent. The state average was 7.5 percent, up 4 percent points from 2019’s 3.5.
“I think we’re fortunate in comparison to a lot of other regions,’ Nugent said. “Chicago is at 8.7 [percent]. The other unique thing, Kankakee County always had a higher unemployment rate than Chicago and the collar counties. Since the pandemic has happened, we’ve always been at a lower unemployment rate, which tells me that we’ve got more of the jobs that are essentials. We don’t have as many hospitality workers.”
County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler said the county is fortunate that many people have been able to work through the pandemic.
“We’re sitting in a pretty good position compared to almost every other region in the state because of the number of essential businesses whether it’s biotech, the food processing industry and agribusiness,” Wheeler said.
Nugent also said there is still a drastic need for employees in the county. He estimated it at around 1,000 jobs.
“We’ve got companies all around that are having a hard time finding employees because some of them are expanding, some are starting new shifts,” he said. “There are some where older employees are afraid to come to work because of the COVID, so they’ve lost some people that they’ve had. There’s jobs out there if people are willing to work.
“It’s difficult because of some of the COVID restrictions and some of the increased unemployment benefits made it not as beneficial for people to actually be working. ... As much as you want to see people get the necessary aid they need, you don’t want the aid to be preventing them from going to work.”
So how do you get those who are unemployed to fill the available jobs?
Nugent said there are job listings on Kankakee Community College’s website at kcc.edu. On the top of the home page, click on programs and then select Career Coach.
“It’s kind of an all-encompassing tool where people can search the area — for all the jobs within Kankakee County or within an hour’s drive,” he said. “They can make it flexible for what they want it to be.”
Nugent said there are a lot of transportation and manufacturing jobs available, and Nucor Steel has plans of investing $60 million more in their facility. Nucor is looking for employees.
“Those are good, high-paying jobs,” he said. “Those are things that are happening. Those are living-wage jobs. We’re not talking minimum-wage stuff, these are jobs where people can raise a family.”
Even in the best of times, unemployment is going to hover between 3 to 5 percent. Wheeler was shown data that in the early 1970s when Kankakee was humming with manufacturing at A.O. Smith and Roper, unemployment was still at 4 percent.
“It’s higher than we’d like to have it,” Nugent said. “A year ago, we were talking about the lowest unemployment in years when it got down to 4.1. In the midst of a pandemic being only at 6.4 percent, I think we’re doing OK.”