Fresno County's unemployment rate continues to show modest year-over-year improvement, despite a normal winter swoon in retail and agriculture that sent jobless figures rising to 16% in January.
While the jobless rate in the county ticked up from 14.9% in December -- the result of retail stores shedding about 1,300 jobs and another 1,400 workers idled by a seasonal lull in farming -- figures released Friday by the state Employment Development Department indicate that unemployment was lower across the central San Joaquin Valley than it was a year ago in January 2012.
RELATED DATA: Map, unemployment estimates for Central Valley communities
For Fresno County, that represents 16 consecutive months of year-over-year growth in jobs -- "a big deal," according to Steven Gutierrez, a labor market analyst for the state EDD.
"We're seeing steady improvement in trade/transportation/utilities and in leisure/hospitality," Gutierrez said Friday. "That means consumers and businesses are opening up their wallets a little more."
Between January 2012 and January 2013, total net job growth in Fresno County was about 3,600 jobs. The greatest increases were in the trade/transportation/utilities sector, which includes wholesale businesses and retail stores; professional/business services, composed of firms that provide services for clients including legal, scientific, accounting, engineering and technical work; and leisure/hospitality, including hotels, restaurants and bars.
The construction industry, one of the hardest-hit sectors through the recession, continued its slow climb in year-over-year job growth in Fresno County, Gutierrez said.
"Construction is starting off the new year with 600 more jobs than a year ago, and hopefully that will continue," he said. "There are a few housing developments going on, and road work like the Highway 180 construction, where we're seeing more activity. Construction is one of those sectors where, if you take a drive, you can see that things are busier."
Across Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties, more than 146,000 people who want jobs were unemployed -- about 16.4% of the entire Valley labor force estimated at nearly 895,000 workers.
The unemployment rate does not, however, include those who employment experts describe as "discouraged" workers -- people who have given up on their search for work because of the lagging economy.
The unemployment rate also does not distinguish part-time work from full-time jobs, and so doesn't reflect people who are underemployed or working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet.
Unemployment rates are calculated from a federal survey of 5,500 California households, while the number of jobs in various industry sectors is measured by a statewide survey of 42,000 businesses.
Fresno County's upward lurch from 14.9% in December to 16% in January reflects a typical seasonal trend in the San Joaquin Valley because of diminished agricultural work through the winter months, Gutierrez said.
The number of farm jobs in Fresno County fell by 1,400 over the month, and Gutierrez said history suggests that number won't begin bouncing back until March or April.
The end of seasonal holiday employment in stores, he added, was the likely trigger for the loss of about 1,300 retail jobs in January.
"Most sectors in the Valley have job losses in the first quarter of the year," Gutierrez said.
Similar trends were observed in the state and national unemployment rates. California's unemployment rate was unchanged between December and January, at 9.8%. But that was down from 11% in January 2012. California was one of 33 states in which the unemployment rate was lower than it was a year ago.
Unemployment rates rose in all 50 states between January and February, and the national rate ticked upward to 7.9%, from December's 7.8% A year ago, in January 2012, the U.S. unemployment rate was 8.3%.
February's Valley unemployment figures will be released late next week.