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By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    The unemployment rate in Southwestern Illinois took a nosedive in 2014, according to figures released by the Illinois Department of Employment Security at the end of January.
    The Illinois portion of the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area saw a decline from 8.5 percent in December 2013 to just 5.7 percent in December 2014. The IDES report noted that the 5.7 percent figure was the lowest recorded for the area since December 2006.
    Dave Stoecklin, executive director of the Madison County employment and training department, however, is not a believer. He points out that to be counted as unemployed, a person has to fit into a relatively narrow niche — they cannot have a job of any type but they must be actively seeking one. Stoecklin said that doesn’t take into account people who are underemployed — working part-time jobs simply because they can’t find full-time positions. But it does count people as employed if they work a minimum of just one hour per week or made at least $20 on a job during the week.
    Stoecklin said he thinks the real unemployment figures would be much higher if they only counted as employed those people who were working as much as they want to work and included all the people who were so discouraged by the inability to find a job that they’ve given up looking.    
    “So I don’t believe that number (5.7 percent),” Stoecklin said. I’ve gotten layoff notices from US Steel and from Olin, for example. US Steel closing its coke plant in Granite City is going to affect 176 folks. I don’t know how many people Sun Coke will hire. I know that they’re going to do an expansion to accommodate US Steel’s needs there, but it’s not going to be 176. With modern technology, there’s just going to be fewer jobs.”
    Stoecklin also points to the fact that, according to the same IDES statistics, while the unemployment rate dropped 2.8 percent, there were 700 fewer jobs in Southwestern Illinois at the end of 2014 than there were just 12 months earlier. Where did those jobs go?
    Chuck Gascon, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, says that the problem lies in how the statistics are created. Gascon explains that there are actually two government surveys that are conducted on a monthly basis. One is the establishment survey in which the U.S. Department of Labor queries businesses regarding the number of people they have employed. That survey is the source of the new job number published each month.
    The unemployment rate, on the other hand, comes from a survey of households, in which they ask people if they are employed, looking for work, etc. If they respond that they are not employed and not looking for a job, they are not considered to be in the workforce and do not factor into the unemployment rate.
    In a metropolitan area like St. Louis that is divided between two states, people may live in one state and work in the other, Gascon said. “So, for example, somebody who is unemployed and lives in Belleville, Ill., might take a job in St. Louis. That would reduce the unemployment rate in Belleville even though you would not see job growth in Southwestern Illinois. So, that’s the reason that you can get discrepancies between job growth numbers and the unemployment rate. The number of people who are employed in the metro area is actually higher today than it was a year ago.  The reason the unemployment rate has dropped is because more people are employed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that businesses in Southern Illinois are creating those jobs.”
    Gascon said that, when you look at the St. Louis metropolitan area, there were actually 17,000 more jobs at the end of 2014 than at the beginning of the year. With a base of 1.3 million jobs in the metro, that’s a 1.3 percent increase, which is about half the national figure, according to Gascon. On the other hand, it was triple the rate of increase in the area from the year before.
    He said construction was a particularly strong sector for job growth in the metro area last year.

Food conference set for Godfrey

    GODFREY — The Alton Area Business Development Association has teamed up with Lewis and Clark Community College to play host to the region’s first local food conference at the college on March 31, from 7:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
    The cost is $15 when purchased online at MarketFreshNetwork.org and $20 at the door.
    The event is open to those with an interest in local farmers markets, farm-to-table programs, community supported agriculture, local food availability, and many other related topics.
    “If you’re a farmer, nutritionist, food producer, entrepreneur, restaurant owner, caterer, economic developer, food retailer, food distributor, hospital, school district, senior living institution, government official, or anyone interested in growing their business or community through local food, you should get a front row seat,” said event planner Ron Tanner of BiG iDEA Workshops.
    The event, titled Opportunities in Local and Regional Foods Conference, will feature speakers from the Illinois Farm Bureau, USDA Rural Development, and other partners including Illinois-Metro East Small Business Development Center, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Madison County Community Development, BiG iDEA Workshops, U of I Extension, Trailnet, Feast Magazine, and St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
    Local speakers from the Alton-Godfrey area will discuss their projects involving local food.
    Refreshments are to be provided by LCCC Catering using fresh cheese and yogurt products from local producers Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville and Windcrest Dairy in Trenton.
    Alton Area Business Development Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit economic and community development organization whose mission is to support the local economy through small business incubation, a local food hub, commercial kitchen rental and the arts.  The Great Rivers Market Fresh Network, online at MarketFreshNetwork.org, is the brand created to facilitate this mission. This network is the emerging home to a growing community of entrepreneurs, chefs, food fans and artisans of all kinds, designers, mentors and others.
    It is designed around three interconnected business development components, each sustaining the other, to incubate new and accelerate existing businesses.
    People can purchase event tickets, contact, or donate to AABDA via www.MarketFreshNetwork.org, or contact Tanner by email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone at (618) 551-5020.
IBJ Business News

Save 25 percent on summer tuition at McKendree

    LEBANON — A lower tuition rate is again being offered this summer at McKendree University — a 25 percent reduction on class tuition for Lebanon campus undergraduate students.
    Eligible for the $638 per credit hour rate are current and newly admitted undergraduates, as well as those enrolled at other institutions who want to take a course or two as non-degree-seeking students. Courses are available online as well as on campus. The offer does not apply to graduate students or those enrolled at off-site locations.
    Summer classes start June 1. Contact the McKendree admission office at (618) 537-6831 for more details.

Williams Venker & Sanders cited in national rankings

    ST. LOUIS – Williams Venker & Sanders has been included in U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 Best Law Firms listing. The firm was given the highest ranking of National “Tier 1” again this year in railroad law.  
    For the practice areas of labor and employment, personal injury, product liability, and railroad law, the firm received a “Tier 1” ranking in the metropolitan area. The firm received “Tier 2” rankings for the metropolitan area for medical malpractice and commercial litigation. This was its first recognition for commercial litigation and labor and employment.

HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital participating in rural health network

    BELLEVILLE — HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and 15 other hospitals have formed the “Illinois CONNECT Rural Health Tele-Network.” Tele-CONNECT’s purpose is to coordinate and improve the access, quality and delivery of tele-medicine and tele-health services for patients in underserved areas of central and southern Illinois.
    The Health Services and Resources Administration grant was awarded through the Rural Health Network Development Planning Program
on behalf of 16 hospital network members in Springfield, Carlinville, Carrollton, Litchfield, Highland, Belleville, Streator, Decatur, Pana, Mattoon, Shelbyville, Effingham, Vandalia, Hillsboro, Greenville and Breese. Mason District Hospital,
Havana, later  joined Tele-CONNECT
to become the 17th member.