Merced County at top of magazine's 'worst' list

The reason is difficulty finding a job, in a comparison of metropolitan areas.

bbowers@mercedsunstar.com
and AMEERA BUTT
abutt@mercedsunstar.com
January 24, 2012 

Merced County is the worst place in the country to find a job.

That's according to the latest findings by the U.S. News & World Report.

Merced County leads the magazine's list of metropolitan areas where it's increasingly difficult to find employment. But we're in good company: Five other Central Valley communities were also on the list. The reason? The unemployment rate, for starters. The housing crisis is another factor.

The news didn't surprise Merced City Council members.

"The truth is, we need jobs in Merced," said Mike Murphy. "We've got our work cut out for us."

Merced had a 16.9 percent unemployment rate in November 2011, a 1.7 percent decrease over the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The magazine cites a report called "U.S. Metro Economies," released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and research firm IHS Global Insight, showing a connection between a high unemployment rate and metropolitan areas taking the brunt of the national housing crisis.

The report says average home prices in Merced fell 19.5 percent, from $101,076 to $81,379, between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the fourth quarter of 2011 -- more than any other other city in the country.

Mayor Stan Thurston, who heard about the report from his aviation business partner, agreed it's difficult to find a job in Merced. He said there are jobs available, but people don't have the right training. As an example, he pointed to the high number of agriculture-based jobs in the county with few people qualified to work them.

Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling agreed that education, or a lack of it, is at the heart of the issue. "It's all about education. We need to be sure our residents are getting the education they really need to have good, sustainable careers," she said.

Murphy said UC Merced will play a big role in turning the situation on its head. "UC Merced will be a key to long-range success. Integrating the university and its graduates into our local economy, in a way that hasn't quite happened yet, will be important for the community to move forward."

Murphy and Thurston, both elected in November on pro-business platforms, said the city needs to set itself apart from other communities to encourage industry to grow and expand.

Thurston said the area needs to offer further incentives to businesses, such as tax holidays.

"We can't just go out and say 'please, hire people.' We need to get businesses here who can do it and make it more affordable for existing businesses who want to expand and do that," he said.

Murphy said the council intends to look at impact fees charged to businesses, and that he wants to streamline the permitting process to make operating a company in Merced as easy as possible.

"We have to recognize that we're in competition with other cities when businesses are looking to set up shop and expand, so we really need to set ourselves apart. We need to welcome these people and roll out the red carpet, not only to tune up our economic engine, but really rebuild it. That's the big priority."

Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsunstar.com.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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