Unemployment has been falling more or less steadily across the state and nation since the depths of the Great Recession a decade ago, and now it's nearly impossible to drive around without seeing "help wanted" or "now hiring" signs in storefronts or on fast food restaurant signs.

But the unemployment rate in Lake County has remained stubbornly higher than the rest of the Chicago metropolitan area, the state of Indiana and the country. It's consistently been higher than neighboring Illinois, which usually has one of the worst jobless rates in the Midwest.

With a labor force of 237,303 people and 11,636 of them out of work in July, Lake County had a jobless rate of 4.9 percent, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Though 4.9 percent unemployment is generally not considered particularly high in and of itself, it's a staggering 44 percent higher than the overall Indiana jobless rate of 3.4 percent, a full percentage point higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, and a continuation of an ongoing pattern in which Lake County lags behind the state and nation.

Lake County currently has the sixth highest unemployment rate out of Indiana's 92 counties, and has often had the highest or second highest jobless rate in the Hoosier state in recent years.

If Lake County were a state, it would be tied with Louisiana for 48th worst unemployment rate nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only West Virginia, which has a jobless rate of 5.4 percent, and Alaska's 6.9 percent rate have a higher percentage of the population out of work.

More than 290 of the 388 metropolitan areas in the country have lower unemployment rates than Lake County, including cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo that are often thought of as depressed Rust Belt burghs. Lake County's 4.9 percent rate puts it in league with Memphis, Tennessee; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Scranton and Eerie, Pennsylvania.

Joblessness in Lake County is much higher than in neighboring Illinois, which Indiana state officials frequently criticize but which had an unemployment rate of only 4.2 percent in July. The Illinois Department of Employment Security reports that joblessness in the Chicago metropolitan area, of which Lake County is a part, stood at just 4.3 percent in July.

Lake County, the second most populous county in the state and the hub of the Region, also has significantly higher joblessness than anywhere else in Northwest Indiana. The three surrounding counties — Porter, Jasper and Newton — have unemployment rates of 3.9 percent, 3.7 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively, in July.

So what's the matter with Lake County?

Vanished industrial jobs

It's partly the industrial heritage of a lakefront county that was built around hulking steel mills, sprawling oil refineries and massive factories that have become more automated and now employ a fraction of the workers they once did.

"From what I see, the Lake County labor market structure is taking a bit longer to transition from the labor-intensive manufacturing sector to the technical service sector," said Anthony Sindone, a clinical assistant professor of finance and economic development at Purdue University Northwest. "We can continue making strides in education and training the workforce to reduce the stress of this structural transition."

Unemployment is steepest in the old industrial cities that make up North Lake County: Gary, Hammond and East Chicago.

"These three cities make up more than half of the entire labor force in Lake County and have consistently had some of the highest unemployment rates in the region," Indiana University Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said. "If you exclude these cities, then the rest of Lake County has an unemployment rate lower than the U.S., Illinois and the Chicago metropolitan area."

In 2016, Lake County had a jobless rate of 9.58 percent, largely because it was 11.71 percent in Hammond, 16.23 percent in East Chicago and 16.61 percent in Gary, Pollak said. Excluding those cities, unemployment in Lake County was only 7.21 percent, below the national rate of 7.39 percent the broader metropolitan Chicago rate of 8.46 percent.

"With these three urban core cities, Lake County would have a relatively low unemployment rate," Pollak said. "This serves as an important reminder that we cannot hope to ensure a prosperous economic future for Lake County and Northwest Indiana more generally, without coming together, regardless of where you live, to deal with the economic challenges of these three cities."

Tackling the problem

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North Lake County cities have been working to address the persistent issue of relatively high unemployment.

"One of the main ways Hammond focuses on lowering the unemployment rate in Lake County is by bringing new companies to this area, especially those that will be relocating and creating high paying jobs," Hammond Chief of Staff Phil Taillon said. "Potash, American Stair, Root Brothers, Lear, Anco Steel and the new data center are a few of the more recent ones that come to mind. We also focus on helping existing Hammond businesses with expansion, which typically helps create new jobs. Korellis Roofing, Hammond Group, Tri-State Industries and Unilever are good examples of that. The best way to attack unemployment is to create more opportunities for folks looking for work. Some cities and towns are so focused on bringing new businesses to their area that they forget that it is equally important, if not more, to work with the successful businesses in your area that have already created a successful plan and have proven to constantly offer job opportunities for local residents."

Africa Tarver, the city's executive director of planning and development, said Hammond tries to ensure its residents are qualified and have a chance to meet with employers.

"The city of Hammond hosts an annual job fair, as well as career fairs to assist companies with hiring needs," she said. "We also work with WorkOne and the North Township Trustee to ensure that regional training programs and job fairs are advertised. Also, the city's support of the College Bound program and local institutions of higher learning provides additional workforce readiness."

It's important to try to place out-of-work people with the available jobs, Taillon said.

"Creating jobs is the majority of the battle, but connecting those folks that are looking for work with companies that are hiring is very important as well," he said.

Job fairs

Gary works to connect unemployed residents with jobs, resources for job searches, and skills and training, Gary Director of Communications LaLosa Dent Burns said.

"In Gary, we are also developing our workforce by hosting events like the Reentry Job Fair, CDL Fairs and through partnerships with entities such as WorkOne and Goodwill Industries to provide employment and training opportunities for our residents," she said. "Partnerships have continued to improve with Work One and Goodwill Industries as well as employers and post-secondary institutions in Gary and Northwest Indiana."

The city has monthly workforce hiring events, where UPS has hired more than 230 Gary residents since April.

"The city’s Workforce Development Office provides screening of applicants for employers like Superior Truss and Panel, who expanded their Gary operations and over 30 residents have passed pre-employment tests and have been hired," Burns said. "We work with companies like Edsal Manufacturing to set up job fairs. Of about 300 job seekers, Edsal hired over 100 Gary residents. We are currently working with HMD Trucking, Vexor Technology and Illinois Central School Bus. We have an average of 31 employers we work with to refer job seekers to on a monthly basis."

The city has annual commercial driver's license fairs, self-employment and entrepreneurial expos, and job fairs that attract hundreds, Burns said. The city's Gary Micro-Enterprise Initiative will host eight weeks of workshops on “How To Start Your Own Business” with eight weeks of workshops this fall at the ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.

"All of these strategies and initiatives assist to decrease the City’s unemployment rate," she said. "Workforce development is more than a single program or initiative. It’s an essential component of community economic development."

The economy

Though comparatively higher, Lake County's unemployment rate has been steadily declining since hitting a recent high of 12.2 percent in 2012.

Nearly 5 percent of Lake County residents remain out of work, but companies have had a hard time filling on their job openings of late, which could hurt their production capabilities and ability to fill orders, potentially jeopardizing profits, said Mirko Marich, president of Staff Source, an employment agency in Hammond.

"Companies are finding it exceedingly difficult to hire the staff they need to meet production demands," Marich said. “In my 20 plus years in the staffing industry, I have never witnessed the hiring demands we are currently seeing."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.