Berks County appears to be recovering from the national recession of 2008-09, with an unemployment rate and an employment-to-population ratio that are slightly outperforming Pennsylvania and nation. However, there also are a few warning signs, including an average salary increase that is smaller than both the state and national level, and relatively high spending by county government and schools.
Unemployment rates are a timely indicator of changes in the local employment landscape. In 2018, Berks County’s unemployment rate was 4.2%, slightly lower than Pennsylvania and similar to the nation. This was down from a post-recession peak of 8.7% in 2010. This was the third year of a rate decline.
The employment-to-population ratio also offers an indicator of the availability of work in a region. The ratio Berks was 78% in 2018, slightly higher than Pennsylvania and 17 points higher than the nation. Between 2000 and 2018, the county’s ratio peaked at 80% in 2000 and dropped as low as 73% in 2009.
Changes in the size of the labor force indicate people’s willingness and ability to find work. From 2000 to 2018, Berks County’s labor force increased 9%, a larger increase than at the state level, but less than at the national level.
Employment changes by sector paint a picture of the county’s changing economy. The total number of jobs in Berks County increased 11% from 2001 to 2018, but the Professional and Business Services sector grew 29% during this period, while Manufacturing jobs declined 18%. Trade, Transportation and Utilities was up slightly, by 4%.
The share of jobs by sector is a key indicator of the structure of the economy in a region. In 2018, Trade, Transportation and Utilities made up the largest sector in Berks, accounting for 18% of jobs. Professional and Business Services comprised 14% of jobs, a similar share to the nation and even with the state. Other key sectors were Manufacturing, 14%; Health Care and Social Assistance, 13%; and Government, 10%.
Average salaries also are a gauge of the degree to which employees are sharing in the prosperity of particular industries. In 2018, the three highest-paid sectors in Berks County were Financial Activities, with an average salary of $77,200, Construction, at $63,800, and Professional and Business Services, at $62,500.
Changes in salaries by sector offer a more detailed view of economic health in specific industries. Between 2000 and 2018, the average salary for Berks workers increased 8%, less than the state and nation. Most economic sectors in Berks had increases in average salaries during this period, but the extent varied widely, from a 41% increase in Financial Activities to a 21% decline in Educational Services.
Commuters entering and leaving a county is an indicator of its economic vitality and ability to draw employers and employees from surrounding areas. It may also reflect the quality of the match between the jobs available in an area and the skills of its resident workforce. In 2017, 44% of Berks County residents commuted outside the county for work, up 9 percentage points since 2002. Also in 2017, 38% of people who worked in Berks had traveled there from another county. The City of Reading, in contrast, had 85% of city residents commute out of the city, while 80% of the city’s workers commuted in from elsewhere.
Per capita income from governmental programs is one way to measure a region’s level of poverty. In 2018, Berks County received $3,185 in public assistance income per resident, less than Pennsylvania, but more than the nation. Between 2001 and 2018, public assistance per resident in Berks County increased 94% (after inflation), compared to 82% statewide and 53% nationally.
Local government spending per capita can indicate the level of services provided, as well as the cost of taxes, a potential hindrance to development. Local governments in Berks County spent $1,138 per resident in 2017, up 17% from 2000, but down from $1,569 in 2008. Local government spending was higher across Pennsylvania than in Berks.
County government spending is a similar indicator, but at the county level. Berks County government spent just over $1,050 per resident in 2017, down from $1,090 in 2000. County government spending across Pennsylvania has been consistently lower than Berks since 2000.
Spending of school districts show a community’s support for public education. Schools in Berks County spent $2,870 per resident in 2018, up 40% from $2,050 in 2001. Berks spent more per resident than Pennsylvania in 2018, and has spent more than the state each year since 2001.
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