It's been five years since the national recession slammed into the Quad-City economy.

But even though the area's unemployment rate has dipped from its 2010 highs, the number of people who are employed here has plunged to its lowest level in a decade, according to year-end average. And the size of the area's labor force, meaning those who are working or who are officially looking for work, has shrunk to a nine-year low.

There is some job growth, according to the year-end figures, which are published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and workforce agencies in Iowa and Illinois.

In each of the past three years, there were more non-farm jobs than the year before. But the growth rate has slowed, and at the end of 2013, the Quad-Cities still was 5,000 jobs short of where it was the year before the economic storm hit and drained 9,300 jobs out of the area's economy.

In fact, a report last month by IHS Global Insight predicted that it would be 2016-2017 before the Quad-City area would return to its peak employment.

Tom Jackson, a senior economist there, said as the rest of the country experiences economic growth, it will tend to help the Quad-Cities, too.

The area, however, continues to see slow growth, as population gains are sluggish and demand in the service-related economy is restrained as a result, he said.

Struggling for a job

Debbie Archer doesn't need an economist to tell her things are tough. The 50-year-old Bettendorf woman lost her job in 2009 when Seaford Clothing shut its doors abruptly.

Since then, she has held a series of part-time jobs. She has tried for full-time work, but it hasn't happened.

"I'd like to have a 9 to 5," she said.

Archer said she's fortunate she inherited her house, but she also is getting older and starting to dip into her savings.

With retirement on the horizon, she added, "I don't want to be a broke old woman."

The twin problems of a declining labor market and shrinking number of employed isn't unique to the Quad-Cities. Labor force participation has dropped nationwide from 66 percent in 2007 to about 63 percent last year.

In a report this month, the Congressional Budget Office said half the decline was because of longer term trends such as retiring baby boomers, but the weakness in the economy also contributed, with some workers getting discouraged and dropping out of the labor force.

That's meant fewer people employed. Area career specialists say it's also meant more competition in some sectors of the labor market.

Lots of competition

Lori Warren, a career adviser for Partners in Job Training in Rock Island, said her clients are facing stiff competition when they go out looking for a job.

"They're not going against 10 other people, they're going against 500," Warren said. "The employers can be very picky and demand a lot more."

She noted it's not just lower-skilled workers who have a hard time. She pointed to a person with an advanced degree who landed a job but it paid only $11 per hour.

"It's more common than you think," Warren said.

Prospective employers face their own problems. Skills mismatches have made it difficult to find the right workers at the right time. Lengthy stints of joblessness also have dulled jobs skills.

In addition, that smaller labor pool that's evident nationally is more pronounced in the Quad-Cities than it is in many other Iowa metro areas.

At the end of 2013, an average of 198,900 were in the area's labor force. That's a 7,000-person drop from what it was five years earlier. In fact, the size of the labor force has fallen in four out of the past five years, including the past three.

Some people have left the area. Others have decided to retire.

Retiring instead of looking

They're people like Kathy Mahan, 63, who also worked at Seaford until it went belly up.

She drew unemployment after the suit-maker closed and tried without success to find work at a handful of manufacturers.

In late 2012, she decided to retire.

"I was a fortunate one," said Mahan, who noted others who worked with her weren't old enough to draw Social Security.

Still, she had planned to work until she was 65 to maximize her own benefits.

Early retirements are getting to be more noticeable, said Rick John, president of the Sedona Group, a workforce management firm.

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"I know some of our clients have told me that their attrition is causing as much of a demand (for new workers) as their business model," he said. "I know it's a factor."

Those early retirements are more plentiful in areas such as the Quad-Cities that have a manufacturing base, said Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University.

He also said the decline in the labor force is likely because of people leaving the area.

The Quad-City population has increased, but that's because of more babies being born here rather than people moving here. In fact, federal data says more people are moving out of the area than are moving in.

These economic trends are hitting the Illinois Quad-Cities a bit harder than Scott County.

There was some employment and labor force growth from 2012 to 2013 on the Iowa side of the river, but it's still significantly below what it was in 2008.

Q-C lags in Iowa

Jackson, the IHS Global Insight economist, warns that as the economy improves, so will mobility. The downside to that, he said, is that's generally meant people move south and west.

"That really isn't working in the favor of the Midwest," he said.

Already, Iowa faces a shortage of labor over the next six years, Swenson said.

It's the result, he said, of an aging workforce, an inability to keep young people in the state and the movement of adults in prime-child bearing years out of Iowa.

Rural areas will be hit hardest by this trend, he said.

Metro areas, on the other hand, will attract workers.

That is a plus for the Quad-Cities, but as things stand now, the area more closely resembles Illinois metros than Iowa metros.

The Des Moines, Waterloo, Sioux City and Dubuque areas have either regained enough workers, or nearly so, to see their labor forces return to their peaks.

That's not the case in the Peoria, Rockford and Decatur areas in Illinois. Their labor forces, like the Quad-Cities, were at their lowest levels in several years.

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