Alabama and Mississippi have been yoked together since they shared the cozy confines of the Mississippi Territory, formed in the late 18th century. The Deep South duo expanded in parallel, on land acquired from native peoples, Spain and, as a result of the Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud Case, Georgia.
They achieved statehood two years apart. If you squint, they still look like mirror images of each other. They hang from Tennessee in narrow strips, their access to the Gulf of Mexico squeezed by Florida and Louisiana’s sprawling coastal frontage.
But while our readers tended to regard the states as interchangeable, Tara Hutchison, communications director at Alabama’s Labor Department, said Alabama and Mississippi’s labor markets are as different as apples and oranges. Neither of those is a major crop in either state, for the record — maybe it’s like comparing peanuts, where Alabama ranks behind only Georgia, to finfish farming, where Mississippi ranks behind only Alaska (adjusted for labor-market size)?
South Carolina, Hutchison said, would be a more appropriate comparison for Alabama. In addition to Alabama’s peanut advantage, the state is bigger — 5 million residents to Mississippi’s 3 million — and it’s more urbanized. The Birmingham, Ala., metropolitan area has twice as many people as Mississippi’s Jackson, and that’s before we’ve even counted Huntsville. Alabama has cultivated different industries, notably aerospace and automobiles, and ended up with an economy that differs from its neighbor’s in significant ways.
Data released by the Commerce Department on Thursday confirmed that not only is Alabama’s economy twice the size of Mississippi’s, but it also has grown almost three times as fast over the past year, adjusted for inflation. To be sure, growth in both states has slowed in recent quarters, and they’ve expanded more slowly than the rest of the country since the Great Recession.
Both states rely heavily on production and manufacturing jobs, often in industries vulnerable to trade disputes and global turmoil. But Mississippi relies more on low-wage versions of these production jobs than does any other state in the union.
Alabama, on the other hand, diversified beyond low-skilled manufacturing when its base began to erode in the 1990s, Hutchison said. It now ranks near the top in its reliance on higher-paid, but still trade-sensitive, manufacturing jobs.
“We are a manufacturing-heavy state,” she said. “We have been ever since the textile mills started going down,” she added later.
The state continues to attract new heavyweight employers. Late last year, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, a joint venture between the two manufacturers, announced they would invest $1.6 billion in a new SUV plant in the high-tech metropolis of Huntsville, best known as the home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Construction has already started, and the 3.1 million-square-foot plant is expected to employ as many as 4,000 people when it comes online in the spring of 2021.
Existing employers are also expanding, Hutchison said. In Alabama and Mississippi, Labor Department data shows, poultry processors added more jobs than any other production industry between 2016 and 2019, and it paid just $640 a week. But in Alabama, poultry was followed by several construction and contracting sectors, which paid an average of as high as $1,016 a week. In Mississippi, nothing came close to chickens.
The gap was similar in services, where the categories with the most growth in Alabama were fast-food restaurants, computer systems design, engineering and data processing. Three of the four paid relatively well. In Mississippi, the largest growth was in the lower-paying warehousing sector.
The state’s low unemployment has spurred aggressive training programs, Hutchison said. For example, defense giant Lockheed Martin has partnered with the state on a free apprenticeship program that recruits and trains candidates in skills such as soldering or wrangling cables.
“We’ve having to make a concerted effort to go out and target other populations that wouldn’t get as much attention when we have high unemployment,” Hutchison said. “We’re going to have to target those who have traditional barriers" to employment, such as disabilities or a criminal record.
Our approach to Labor Department data was similar to that used by economists J. Bradford Jensen, Dennis Quinn and Stephen Weymouth at Georgetown University to analyze how trade and unemployment shape presidential elections. They found rising unemployment and increasing vulnerability to trade in an area hurt incumbent presidential candidates.
Mississippi’s reliance on low-wage industries is inextricably tied to its large unskilled workforce. Local officials are pushing programs to train workers, but only 23.2 percent of the state’s adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher 2018, Census Bureau data shows. That’s lower than any state but West Virginia and well below the national average of 32.6 percent. (Alabama’s figure is 25.5 percent.)
“The education, training and skills that employers want? They may not be finding it,” said Corey Miller, an economic analyst at University Research Center in Jackson, Miss. He added later that, because the state’s workers are less skilled, it has taken them longer to train and find work even as the labor market tightens.
But in the case of Alabama and Mississippi, it turns out statistical factors may be even more important than structural ones. State unemployment rates are first released as preliminary estimates. Gaps in the data may not be as dramatic as they first appear.
State unemployment rates are based on smaller samples than the national figure, and Labor Department experts revise them regularly as more information becomes available. And in Mississippi’s case, this wouldn’t be the first time an apparent rise in unemployment has turned out to be a figment of our estimations. Especially since data from a separate survey points to continued job growth.
“The number of employed Mississippians is higher now than when there were record low unemployment rates last year,” said Dianne Bell, communications director at Mississippi’s labor department. “This seems to suggest that Mississippi is actually on the right path.”
Heather Long contributed to this report.