More people in Fresno County are working in private education and health services than at any time since 2000 -- one bright spot in an employment picture that remains remarkably dim in the wake of the U.S. recession.
Several service industry sectors in the county employed more people at their peak over the past year than they have in at least three years.
But an analysis of the latest figures from the state Employment Development Department through November shows that despite some modest level of jobs recovery in some industries, employment in key sectors such as construction and government remains well below the halcyon pre-recession days.
Final year-end figures that include December won't be available until later this month, but experts say those numbers won't change one troubling fact: the job categories with the greatest growth in the San Joaquin Valley are the ones offering some of the lowest pay for workers.
Last year "certainly was the first year of significant job recovery in the Valley, but a lot of those strongest areas are in lower-paying, consumer-driven areas like retail and hospitality," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
At the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, a survey of businesses last year confirmed a growing tilt toward lower-paying positions, executive director Blake Konczal said.
"One of the things we noted is that a lot of the mid-level positions that we love to see are going away," he said. "We had a small number of high-level positions for people who are highly educated, and then a lot of positions for the lower pay levels."
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said the increase in retail and hospitality jobs "is at least a little good news because it shows there is a little more discretionary income in the community." But, she added, boosting the region's industrial capacity is a key to providing higher-wage jobs.
Overall wage and salary employment across all industries in Fresno County peaked at 345,400 in September, the highest in nearly four years, according to the EDD. But before the recession slammed the local economy, employment reached as high as 372,600 in September 2007.
Outside of agriculture, the education and health services sector -- which includes private schools, colleges and universities as well as hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, private home-health and related fields -- was the largest private-sector employment category, and the only field to reach an all-time high in jobs in Fresno County during 2012. Employment in the sector climbed from 41,700 in January to 43,500 in November, continuing a slow but steady increase in jobs in those fields since 2000.
Other sectors that saw at least a partial recovery in jobs were:
Retail. Employment at retail stores staged something of a comeback in 2012, bolstered by holiday hiring in October and November. An estimated 35,800 people were employed by retail stores in November, the highest number since December 2008.
Leisure/hospitality. Jobs at hotels, restaurants and bars were more plentiful than at any point since mid-2007. The number of people working in the sector peaked in August at 28,900 and tapered off only slightly late in the year.
Professional/business services. This far-flung sector includes a wide range of professionals such as attorneys, accountants, architects, engineers, consultants, scientific researchers, corporate management, office administration, clerical support, custodial work and waste management. Jobs in the sector reached 28,000 in November, the highest total since mid-2009.