Unemployment: A look behind the job numbers in the state of Oklahoma

POTEAU, Okla. - You can get a bird's-eye view from "The World's Tallest Hill" and see a community below that's always giving back.

Take the local coffee shop, for example. You walk in and there are three women crocheting blankets for those going through tough times or big changes.

"Anybody that has any kind of need, we send them a blanket," said Darlene Clark.

While they stitch they chat, and lately a lot of the town's talk has been about the lack of available jobs.

"Finding jobs is not easy right now," said Debbie Baker.

Unemployment has been a problem in LeFlore County, along with surrounding Sequoyah and Latimer counties which are near the Arkansas border.

"I know we have the unemployment office, but if there's not any jobs to have they can't really send them anywhere," said Clark.

The state's unemployment expert says it has to do with manufacturing. Over the past decade, this area has accounted for some of the state's highest unemployment.

In August close to 11 percent of residents were unemployed in LeFlore County, twice the number the state typically boasts.

Financial expert Jake Dollarhide has noticed a trend.

"There's still work to be done. A lot of the counties that are having the problems are border counties, either bordering to Arkansas or bordering to Texas," said Dollarhide.

He says some businesses may opt to move across the state line. Plus, many in Poteau go to Fort Smith, Ark. for work, and the Whirpool plant there recently shut down, sending 1,000 jobs to Mexico.

At the same time, another blow happened, right in the town of Poteau. Cracker manufacturer Bremner moved to Kentucky, taking with it 400 jobs.

"Everybody worked at Bremners," said Clark.

It affected a lot people, like Rose Hubbard, who remembers when she started working at Bremner.

"I thought, well, this company has been here for years. I'm going to have a job where I can settle down, retire," said Hubbard.

Instead, she found herself laid off at age 52.

"We had considered moving back north, my mom would've been extremely happy if I had but because of my children being here and I have grandchildren here you know, that's a difficult decision," said Hubbard.

State experts say the challenges in the southeastern part of the state have to do with a volatile manufacturing market.

Even so, the state treasurer paints a brighter picture statewide.

"A lot of that's tied to the energy industry and manufacturing goods that are important to the energy sector," said Oklahoma State Treasurer Ken Miller.

But these aren't energy jobs.

"It's not energy-centric. A lot of chicken farmers, a lot of manufacturing," said Dollarhide.

Still, the state treasurer touts a strong state economy. Dollarhide agrees but says it's not perfect by any means.

"We can make a lot of improvements. We have a long way to go," said Dollarhide.

Poteau certainly feels that, but again it's in the citizens' nature to help, so when the layoffs hit the community stepped in.

Starting with the technology center that now offers special training to those recently laid off.

"To give them something in their hand when they walk out the door that they can go and maybe be a little better prepared for the opportunities that they may find," said Charley Hayes with Kiamichi Technology Center.

It's an opportunity Rose is taking.

"Where do we go to get another job? You know if you don't have retraining and get some kind of skills behind you. It's going to be hard to find another decent job," said Rose.

The local chamber is helping too. It's working to find an employer to fill the empty space left behind after Bremner left town, all while highlighting what the community does have.

"We have a highly trained workforce right now, and we have a big, huge workforce right now," said Karen Wages, executive director of the Poteau Chamber of Commerce.

Then there's the community opening its arms too.

"Do whatever you got to do to help that person next to you," said Clark.

There to help stitch up the wounds and pick up the pieces, the town with the world's tallest hill is determined to look up.

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