Jobs Mix Keeps Unemployment Low in Faulkner County

The decline of the Fayetteville Shale cost jobs in Faulkner County, but a diverse economy led by sales, office and administrative professions continued to keep the unemployment rate near historic lows, according to data presented at Outlook Conway on Tuesday.

The event, presented by the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, examines local economic trends. This year's event included panel discussions featuring leaders in real estate, energy and health care.

During remarks at the beginning of the event, Brad Lacy, CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, outlined the county's employment picture, comparing Faulkner County with surrounding counties and two others he considers its peers: Craighead and Saline.

The three counties are roughly the same population size, although Faulkner is biggest, with about 122,000 people, and it has about 58,000 jobs. Craighead is the smallest, at about 106,000, but its jobs number is bigger, at 63,000, Lacy noted.

That's because of the mix of job sectors in each county, Lacy said. Faulkner relies heavily on employment in management positions; jobs in the computer and math arena; and business and financial professions.

For example, Faulkner County computer and math jobs — many tied to publicly traded data services provider Acxiom Corp. of Conway — amount to 1,800 jobs. That compares to 500 such jobs in Craighead, he said.

But Craighead makes up ground with jobs in health care and related fields, with 4,500 jobs versus Faulkner's 2,500. That owes to Craighead's long-term status as a key health care hub for northeast Arkansas, drawing workers from a larger area than does Faulkner County, which also must compete with Little Rock for those occupations.

In all, Conway posted a 3.1 percent unemployment rate in March, down from 3.4 percent in March 2016. Faulkner County's unemployment rate stands at 3.3 percent, down from 3.9 percent. Arkansas' March unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, down from 4 percent last year.

Lacy expects the county to see a boost in computer and math sector jobs, beyond 2,000, in light of Acxiom's decision to move its headquarters back to Conway. Acxiom, founded in Faulkner County, sold its Little Rock headquarters in March to Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff. Acxiom plans to maintain a small office at Main and Third streets in Little Rock, with the bulk of its Arkansas workers in Conway.

Jobs in construction and energy extraction have also been a strength, Lacy said. Southwestern Energy Co., the third largest natural gas producer in the country, has a regional office in Conway and 600 workers in the area. Nabholz Corp. is also headquartered in Conway.

Lacy said the total value of building permits in Conway rose to $159.1 million in 2016, up from $114.8 million in 2015. He said the largest commercial project by value was Acadia Healthcare's $18 million behavioral health hospital, which broke ground in October. 

The second biggest was the new $13 million Sam's Club at Lewis Crossing. But Sam's was the biggest project in terms of size, at 136,000 SF, he said.