Where unemployment is tumbling

@CNNMoney May 4, 2012: 12:23 PM ET

WALKER COUNTY, Ga. (CNNMoney) -- As the United States grapples with stubbornly high unemployment, there's one part of the country where the jobless rate is plummeting.

Walker County, Ga., population, 68,756.

As manufacturing strengthened in the area, Walker's unemployment rate shaved off more than three percentage points in only 15 months, and is still falling fast.

"We have actually seen a boom, or a blessing -- I guess we could call it that -- in our local manufacturers," said Larry Brooks of the Walker County Development Authority.

A robust recovery

Even as the rest of the country was slowly recovering from the Great Recession, things were not looking good for Walker County. In August of 2010, the Blue Bird school bus plant closed its doors and hundreds of employees were laid off.

Shannon Pettyjohn was caught completely off guard when he lost his job at the plant, along with 350 of his coworkers.

"It was shock, disbelief; it was a lot of mixed emotions. Then reality set in and we found ourselves scrambling to find work in an already weak economy," he said.

By the end of the year, unemployment had soared to 11%.

For a while, things were rough for Pettyjohn, who lived off jobless benefits for 4 months.

But before long, he was back on his feet. Last year, he finally landed a job at Nissin Break Georgia, which makes components for Honda and golf carts. The company's hired 74 other people in the last few years -- more than a 50% increase in employment. Senior Vice President Jim Owen says business is "very strong" with sales up at least 30% in the last 12 months.

Pettyjohn isn't the only one heading back to work. A diversified economy has helped the county bounce back quickly. Since the school bus plant closed, the county has added over 1,200 jobs through February, when unemployment fell to 7.8%.

And an early reading for March unemployment pegs the rate at 6.9%, far below the national average and significantly better than in neighboring counties like Whitfield, where unemployment is expected to be at 11.3%.

Even Walker's old school bus plant is going back to work. A company that makes parts for garbage trucks and other heavy equipment, Phillips Brothers Machine, plans to take over the shuttered factory and bring on another 30 to 40 workers.

"The building's been sitting idle for over two years. I went in and made an offer. I was in the right place at the right time. It's just a win-win situation," said owner Randy Phillips.

Recipe for success

One unexpected savior for Walker came from an unlikely source: the auto industry.

Back in 2009, few people were predicting a robust comeback for the auto industry. But strength in the sector -- U.S. auto sales in April were up 9% from the year before -- has surely helped Walker County, as improving economic conditions in the broader economy have lifted the small manufacturing community.

A new Volkswagen plant in nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, where many from Walker commute for work, has also brought jobs back to the area.

Some smaller initiatives may have had an impact too.

Walker County says a decades-old tax exemption for manufacturers' inventory has also helped attract businesses from neighboring counties who are still struggling from the recession.

Whitfield County next door, signed a similar tax exemption into law last year, hoping to see a boost. Whitfield is home to Dalton, the self-proclaimed "Carpet Capital of the World" where over 75% of all manufacturing jobs are in the carpet industry. With the housing market still depressed, Whitfield is hoping to find its footing through diversity.

A diversified economy is also a big reason the job market in Walker is recovering.

Manufacturing in the county, which employs almost as many as the service sector, creates a broad range of products.

Layoffs in the carpet and flooring business are partially offset by other industries that are still hiring. For example, the Roper Corporation, a GE affiliate, employs more than 1,300 people in Walker making ranges and cooktops and plans on hiring dozens more in the upcoming months.

Other local manufacturers include a wide range of industries such as wallpapering, clothing printing and safety rope production.

Local residents like Shannon Pettyjohn couldn't be happier that Walker County has turned around.

"It's just amazing during this economy we're actually not just doing good, we're thriving. Seems like we're even going to have a bright future here so I'm thankful for that." To top of page

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