- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s economy is on pace in the coming months to fully regain all the jobs lost during the Great Recession - a milestone for a long recovery that’s had its ups and downs, a state economist said Thursday.

So far, the Bluegrass state has recovered 96 percent of the 122,100 nonfarm jobs that vanished by early 2010 when employment sagged to its lowest level due to the economic downturn, said Monoj Shanker, an economist with the state Office of Employment and Training in Frankfort.

Kentucky should achieve a full pre-recession job recovery by year’s end, due to momentum from seven months of job growth, he said. The state is 4,800 jobs away from matching the high point before the recession hit, he said.

“We’re back on track and we’re expanding steadily,” Shanker said.

The upbeat forecast came as Kentucky’s preliminary jobless rate for August dropped to 7.1 percent, down from the 8.4 percent rate a year ago, the state said. This past July, the statewide rate was 7.4 percent. Kentucky’s rate in August 2014 remained above the 6.1 percent national rate.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who led the state through the recession, said his administration’s efforts to attract new businesses and encourage existing ones to expand were factors in the jobs recovery.

“The global recession was rough on our families, but today’s jobs report shows that for many of our communities, we’re finally coming through the other side,” the Democratic governor said.

Meanwhile, average wages also are up in Kentucky this year after stagnating or dropping slightly in the past three years, according to state statistics.

A complete jobs recovery in Kentucky was slowed by an employment slump that stretched from July 2013 to this past January, Shanker said.

Job losses in the state’s coalfields were a big part of that slump. Mining employment in 2013 and 2014 has averaged 17,600 jobs, down from 35,000 in 1990 and 22,900 in 2011, Shanker said. The eastern Kentucky coalfields have been hardest hit by lost mining jobs.

The downturn has come as Appalachian coal businesses have faced higher production costs and competition from other coal basins and natural gas. Meanwhile, U.S. utilities increasingly have switched from coal to natural gas to generate electricity.

Coal supporters blame tougher regulations enforced by President Barack Obama’s administration for the industry’s slump.

“Kentucky has done real well to pick up the jobs that were lost during the recession,” said Wayne T. Rutherford, the judge-executive in Pike County in the heart of coal country. “But we have lost, in this county, about 1,600 signature jobs.”

The eastern Kentucky county is trying to entice new employers to provide work for displaced miners and others. Rutherford noted efforts to lure a company that would build a natural gas-to-liquids plant. The project would employ more than 50 people for daily operations once fully operational.

Jose Fernandez, an associate professor of economics at the University of Louisville, said the returning jobs statewide aren’t the same as the lost ones.

“It’s hard to say that we’re better off with these new jobs,” he said. “If that were true, we probably would have recovered faster. And I feel like we’ve still been recovering slower.”

The business services sector has led the way in the comeback, adding 8,700 jobs since August 2013, the state said. Job growth also occurred in the health care; government; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; and leisure and hospitality sectors in the past year.

Another positive indicator is that more employers appear to be looking for workers, Fernandez said.

“That is another good sign that the economy is recovering,” he said.

Jobs were lost in the construction and financial sectors in the past year, the state said.

Total nonfarm employment in Kentucky reached 1,865,800 in August, a gain of 2,000 from July and up 24,000 from a year ago, Shanker said.

The pre-recession statewide employment peak was 1,870,600 jobs in January 2008 before job losses mounted due to the economic downturn.

Employment bottomed out at 1,748,500 in February 2010, he said.

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