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As Louisville Metro Unemployment Rate Dips, Thousands Remain Jobless

Louisville skyline

John Kimbrough started out digging graves with his grandfather.

The hard labor and long hours instilled a work ethic within Kimbrough that he's still proud of today. Since his early days slinging a shovel, he's spent nearly his whole life at work, at times holding two jobs.

"I don't think I ever slept," he said of those days.

But he's presently out of a job — for the first time in a long time — and he's not happy about it.

Kimbrough is one of the 25,886 people counted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed in the Louisville Metro area. The 3.9 percent local unemployment rate is the lowest it's been all year, according to data from the federal agency.

The unemployment rate is widely considered a measure of economic vitality. And in metro areas across the country, the rate is generally on the decline.

This is good news for groups like Greater Louisville, Inc., the Metro Chamber of Commerce. President and CEO Kent Oyler said the new statistic "highlights the need employers have for labor of all skills levels."

Oyler said the city still needs to work on attracting and retaining more skilled workers to the region.

"There are still thousands of open positions and we have to fill them to keep Greater Louisville’s economy growing,” he said in a statement.

Oyler attributes the drop in unemployment to the market, which he said "continues to strengthen."

"It is a national trend," he said. "We are in a growth period for hiring and investment. Greater Louisville is benefiting from that trend. We have to capitalize on it now to really keep up the momentum of that increased investment locally.”

'You have to have money to exist in this world'

Still, thousands of people, like Kimbrough, are actively seeking a job, but can't land one.

To be counted as unemployed means an individual is out of work, but has actively sought employment within the past months, according to the federal agency that keeps track of the nation's labor force.

Kimbrough lost his job as a manager at a hotel about four months ago. Personal issues, he said, kept him away from work — but dealing with those issues was priority.

"Life happens," he said.

He doesn't resent his former employer and doesn't regret the decision he made to put his personal life over work.

And he's been out nearly every day looking for a new job. He goes to career fairs at the Louisville Urban League. He follows up with interviews and emails and calls employers to make sure they know he's serious about getting hired.

"I'm very motivated," Kimbrough said. "You have to have money to exist in this world."

His bills aren't yet unmanageable. He has some money saved and is working odd jobs. But the labor intensive, day-to-day jobs aren't ideal for the 57-year-old.

"I'd rather use my mind to work, instead of my body," he said.

Those jobs, however, are tough to come by for Kimbrough.

For starters, he fears his age is a turnoff to most employers who, oftentimes, see little more than an online application. What's more, his decade-old felony conviction is a scarlet letter, of sorts, that still haunts him today.

"If you've paid your debt to society and it's still being held against you, then that debt is never paid," he said.

Men like Kimbrough, those with criminal records, account for nearly 34 percent of all non-working men ages 25 to 54, according to a 2015 report by the New York Times.

The effects of this go beyond the individual, as well.

Nationally, the inability of convicted felons to find work costs some $60 billion in gross domestic product output, according to a 2010 study by the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Kimbrough admits his mistake then, but wishes it didn't hold him back now.

If he gets his way, it won't.

At a job fair earlier this week, he met with hiring agents from UPS for a position as a package handler. The face-to-face interaction left him feeling uplifted, like he's more than an application — more than a number — more than his past.

When he goes to his interview next week, he'll walk in confident and ready to work.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.