Report: Unemployment down, job creation steady in Will County

As of April, the county’s unemployment rate stood at 7%, below one year prior when it reached 16%

Will County’s economy appears to be on solid footing as it and the nation continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the local Center for Economic Development.

In its virtual report to investors on Wednesday, the Will County CED highlighted several data points showing a local recovery which compares favorably to the rest of the state.

Doug Pryor, the CED’s vice president for economic development, said much like the the rest of U.S., Will County took about a 3% hit to its gross regional product in 2020, compared to the prior year due to the economic constraints of the pandemic.

“Considering where we thought we would be at the beginning of COVID, this is actually an OK number,” Pryor said.

Even with the impact, Pryor said he anticipates the county to bounce back as more vaccinations and lifting of restrictions causes economic activity to resume.

As of April, the county’s unemployment rate was 7%, well below the 16% mark it hit one year prior in the midst of the most severe shutdown. Pryor added the county’s unemployment rate is still elevated compared to what it was prior to the pandemic.

The most recent data also show the median household income in Will County is around $90,000, the fifth highest in the state. It’s well above the national median household income of around $65,000.

Pryor noted that surprisingly, the number of businesses in Will County in the final quarter of 2020 was actually slightly higher, about 1.4%, than the previous year.

“I don’t think anybody expected that or could have anticipated that change,” he said. “I think it speaks a lot to the support programs that were put together both at the national, and frankly, at the state and local levels as well.”

As an example, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020, Will County received around $120 million, a sizable chunk of which the county government distributed to small local businesses hit hard by the recession.

Pryor also pointed to the longterm trend in which Will County has been the top job creator in the state over the past decade, even with the effects of the pandemic.

Between 2010 and 2020, about 45,000 jobs have been created in Will County, even more than the just under 43,000 created in Cook County. During that time, 70 out of the state’s 102 counties saw a net loss in jobs.

A pamphlet with job hunting information sits at a computer station Thursday at the Workforce Investment Board of Will County's location in Joliet.

Not only is the nation seeing rapid hiring efforts as the economy opens up, but wages are also on the rise, a trend seen in Will County. Pryor said as of late 2020, wages rose in Will County by about 13% since the year before, with much of the growth seen by workers making less than $20 per hour.

“That’s a huge jump in one year,” Pryor said.

He added “we’re seeing (wage growth) where it should be, and frankly long overdue in terms of where it is on the pay scale.”

Still, Pryor said even with the wage growth, that hasn’t actually resulted in more people going back into the workforce. Much like the rest of the nation, Will County is experiencing a labor shortage. Since 2019, about 15,000 fewer people in Will County either have a job or have been looking for a job over the last four weeks.

Pryor said the number changes over time but the end result is “extraordinary” and continues to be a challenging phenomenon.

While many in the business community have argued the additional federal unemployment benefits have disincentivized people from returning to work, Pryor offered a more complex reasoning behind the number.

He said the benefits may play a role, but local surveys find many workers are concerned about not having childcare, wanting more flexibility in their schedule and are still concerned about being infected with the virus.

“There’s a broad mix of things,” he said.