Time to climb onto this new, unpredictable, bucking bronco of an economy.

Or at least it’s time to help people who’ve been thrown hard into the mud get back in the saddle.

So the Navajo County Board of Supervisors has approved the state and federally funded $1.8-million budget for a series of work centers and workforce development plans, in cooperation with Apache and Gila counties.

Arizona ranks as the No. 2 state in the country when it comes to recent job growth at the chaotic tail-end of a year’s worth of pandemic. Arizona and South Carolina are now the only two states with weekly unemployment claims lower than before the wave of pandemic shutdowns at about this time last year, according to national numbers posted on the Wallet Hub website (wallethub.com/edu/states-unemployment-claims/72730).

Arizona ranked second nationally in the jobs recovery since last week and No. 8 nationally since the onset of the pandemic.

Arizona’s jobless rate declined 15% from the same week a year ago and 89% since the start of the pandemic. In April, Arizona’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.4%, and the national average is also 6.4%.

However, the Apache County unemployment remained at 11%, the Navajo County rate at 8.5% and the Gila County rate at 6.6% in April. Updated figures by county have not been released for May or June.

Still, Apache, Navajo and Gila Counties have all done surprisingly well when it comes to economic activity, despite the ongoing woes of rural areas. The pandemic hit the tourism sector hard. Moreover, even before the pandemic the rural economics were struggling with high poverty rates, the impact of the decline of coal mining and coal-fired power plants and the decline in once-potent local industries like logging.

But despite the steady gains in recent months, the nation has 8.5 million fewer people working than a year ago when the pandemic hit.

Young adults, Hispanic women, immigrants and people with less education have recovered far less than other groups. The percentage of adults in the workforce has declined and the percentage of long-term unemployed workers has risen. Only 56% or working age women and 67% of working age men are now in the workforce. The decline proved especially sharp for Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans — especially women. The rising number of discouraged workers no longer looking for a job suggests the real unemployment rate might be 3% above the official figures.

Fortunately, a gush of federal grant money and plans for big federal increases in infrastructure spending has bolstered hopes for the economies of rural areas — largely left behind during the recovery from the 2008 recession. Navajo, Apache and Gila counties are all working on ambitious plans to increase the reach and reliability of broadband networks. All three counties have seen a surge in interest in telecommuting, as people flee urban areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles thanks to new opportunities to work remotely.

Navajo County has taken the lead in the three-county effort to improve counseling, training and networking for the unemployed — and people looking for a change in career.

Arizona Work Executive Director Stephanie Ray briefed the supervisors on the effort to open workforce centers in all three counties.

Workforce Arizona partnered with Show Low to open a youth center in the library, to help teens develop skills and find jobs. The consortium also plans to open a job center in Holbrook, turn a passenger van into a mobile employment office to serve Apache County and other rural areas and develop a jobs center at Northland Pioneer Community College. The consortium has a budget of about $1.8 million to spend over the next two years, mostly from the US Department of Labor.

The group has been struggling to recruit local business leaders to serve on the board, since the volunteer position takes a lot of time and requires three people from each of the three counties.

The group’s also trying to get much more reliable, timely data on the jobs local businesses actually need filled.

“One of our roles is to have our finger on the pulse of labor information — the employer’s needs. No way the numbers that came out from the state in February were anywhere near accurate. So we want to track that information and hear from local employers,” said Ray.

She said the consortium understands already that high school students and college students need better preparation for entering the workforce, including internships, customer service training, networking and other career literacy tools.

“They need to pivot quickly from school to work and keep their head above water — they need basic skills,” she said.

The consortium also hopes to create a common database and create better connections between the workforce centers, the Department of Economic Security, job training programs, the community colleges and other partners.

“All of these human service agencies that serve the same demographics — we have no way to communicate across programs. We drop a lot of people between the cracks, to be quite frank,” said Ray. “One of the things we say all the time is that all these resources out there are some of the best-kept secrets. People don’t know there’s a jobs center or a resource center.”

The planned empowerment center in Show Low will showcase the ability to connect job seekers to those resources – and give them the skills they need to get back into the workforce or upgrade their careers.

“It’ll be a one-stop center — the first of several throughout the region,” said Ray.

The center will cost $2.5 million. The consortium already has $825,000 set aside and hopes to land a grant for an additional $526,000. With another $1.6 million in not-yet-identified funding, the consortium can open both an 1,800 square foot jobs center and a 1,400-square-foot family empowerment center — which will provide child care for job seekers and other services.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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