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Love's General Manager Charley Fisher, far left, runs the Strafford travel stop with nearly 60 employees.
Love's General Manager Charley Fisher, far left, runs the Strafford travel stop with nearly 60 employees.

Jobs picture shows steady improvement

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As the winter season rolls in, the jobs forecast appears to be warming up.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 3.4 million job openings on the last business day of September, the most available in three years, and several recent local announcements point to an improved outlook among job seekers and optimism among business owners.

Still, it could be years before the economy grows like it did before 2008, according to one local economics professor.

This month, two companies are giving a shot in the arm to the Greene County town of Strafford. Within days of each other, John Deere Reman officials broke ground for a 275,000-square-foot factory, and Oklahoma City-based Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores Inc. opened an $8 million, 10,000-square-foot truck stop at Missouri Highway 125 and Interstate 44. The Love’s move represents an immediate 59 jobs, while John Deere Reman plans to hire 55 as part of its five-year, $14 million investment plan.

“People are thrilled that there are jobs coming to Strafford,” said Alice Delcour, Strafford Chamber of Commerce and Industry president and a landlord, who recently leased an apartment to a one of the new Love’s employees. “All of these things affect other.”

The uptick east of Springfield comes on the heels of an October in which Hy-Vee Foods Inc. opened with 500 employees and stainless steel manufacturer Paul Mueller Co. announced it would add nearly 300 jobs during the next three years in Springfield. Mueller Co. also plans to invest $600,000 in new equipment during the next five years.

New CEO David Moore said the company would hire general laborers, welders, grinders and fabricators to meet orders for its growing customer base, which includes new clients Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co. and Denver-based cheese and dairy manufacturer Leprino Foods.

Gail Noggle, Republic’s director of planning and economic development, said McLane Co. has hired about 40 employees for its $30 million Republic distribution facility, and it plans to hire roughly 300 during the next 12 months. The company first began receiving orders in mid-November.

Nationally, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 80,000 in October, according to the BLS. While the gains were less than the 100,000 predicted by economists, it was the 13th consecutive month of job growth. The national unemployment rate also improved slightly during the month, to 9 percent from 9.1 percent. During the past 12 months, payroll employment has increased by an average of 125,000 per month.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s international trade deficit in goods and services decreased to $43.1 billion in September from $44.9 billion in August, as exports increased more than imports.

Gov. Jay Nixon said Nov. 17 that Missouri’s international exports are up 12 percent to $3.5 billion in the third quarter compared to last year and 13 percent higher to $10.6 billion on the year. Nixon had just signed trade agreements with China totaling $4.6 billion.

Missouri State University economics professor Tom Wyrick considers the new economic gains as slow and tentative.

“There is a certain hangover that occurs following the financial panic that we had here in 2008 and 2009,” Wyrick said. “Once you go through something like that, companies are just slow to expand, slow to hire. (In) Missouri, they say, ‘Show me. I’m not going to invest and hire people until I’m certain the economy is doing better.’”

For Love’s, the convenience store and gas station chain, communications manager Kyla Turner said Strafford was selected because of its location along highly traveled I-44.

“It filled a great need for us in that area,” she said. “Our development team does a great job of scouting the locations where the best place for that traffic is, and, of course, Strafford is included in that.”

Turner said the company is in growth mode and pointed to the Nov. 17-released Forbes list of largest private companies, in which Love’s jumped to No. 7 from No. 18 in 2010 – the largest gain among the 212 companies ranked. With $24 billion in revenues, Love’s is sandwiched between Publix Super Markets and Ernst & Young.

“In 2010, our competitors, Pilot and Flying J, announced a merger, and through that deal we actually acquired 26 of their stores,” Turner said. “Plus, we’ve added about 20 new stores nationwide this year.”

Wyrick said he doesn’t believe the national economy will experience a double-dip recession, but he believes it will continue to grow between 1 percent and 2 percent per year for the next few years instead of between 3 percent and 4 percent a year, which was common prior to 2008.

The BLS has projected growth of 1.7 percent for 2011.

“It’ll be quite a while until things are back to what we considered normal just a few years ago,” Wyrick said. “And that’s really what happened in the 1930s as well. The economy collapsed in 1929, reached the bottom in 1933, and that’s really when the worst of the depression was over. After that, it just took another six or seven years to get back on a normal footing.”

The 80,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy in October is a good sign, but not overly impressive, Wyrick said. To put things into context, he said for several months in a row in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. economy experienced a monthly net loss of 300,000 to 500,000 jobs.

He said the Springfield economy is roughly 1/1,000th the size of the national economy, so a general rule of thumb is that Springfield represents about 0.1 percent of the nation’s job movement.

“Eighty jobs – that’s better than zero – but it’s nothing to write home about,” Wyrick said.[[In-content Ad]]

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