Jobless rate trending down in Fresno County, latest data show

The Fresno BeeMarch 21, 2014 

Unemployment lessened slightly in Fresno County between January and February. But more importantly, it marked the 29th straight month in which the jobless rate was lower than it was a year earlier.

Businesses across the county added about 2,400 jobs during the month, according to figures released Friday by the state Employment Development Department. Jobs on farms fell by about 1,500, according to a state survey of employers, but non-farm occupations increased by about 3,900 positions.

February's estimated 13.5% unemployment rate in Fresno County was a hairsbreadth improvement from the 13.6% reported in January, but it was 1.4 percentage points lower than February 2013, when joblessness was estimated at 14.9%.

Across neighboring central San Joaquin Valley counties, the effects were similar as the unemployment needle barely moved between January and February.

Statewide, the unemployment rate in February was estimated at 8.0%, down from 8.1% in January. The national jobless rate nudged up to 6.7% from January's 6.6%, the EDD reported.

Steven Gutierrez, an EDD labor market analyst in Fresno, said the estimates follow the region's usual seasonal trends — more unemployment in the winter months with a dearth of activity in farming and food processing, and more people working when the weather warms up.

"If the area's historic job pattern holds true, unemployment will peak in February or March," Gutierrez said. "Historically, April has been the uptick when we see agriculture coming back into play."

But there are worries over how California's drought will affect the agriculture industry and an anticipated springtime employment rebound.

"We don't know yet how that's going to look," Gutierrez said. "We'll have to wait to see how the numbers pan out in April, then we can compare to last year and previous years."

Among the gains between January and February were 1,200 jobs in federal government jobs, including some as a result of seasonal hiring by the Internal Revenue Service to staff up its regional tax-return processing center in southeast Fresno in advance of tax-filing season.

Gutierrez added that the professional/business services sector — which includes occupations such as attorneys or bookkeepers who serve other businesses — gained about 400 positions from January to February, many of whom were accountants and tax preparers needed for tax season.

The construction industry, which was devastated by the recession, continued its slow comeback as it gained about 400 jobs in February.

"Mild weather allowed builders to continue their work last month," Gutierrez said. He added that since February 2013, the construction sector has added 1,300 positions — the largest February-over-February gain since 2006, before the recession popped the region's housing bubble.

Two other sectors with strong year-over-year growth were employment agencies, part of the larger professional/business category, and retail trade, Gutierrez said.

"Retailers have had two months of good (year-over-year) growth to start this year — 1,800 jobs in January and 1,400 jobs in February," he said.

"And employment agencies had year-over growth of 2,200 jobs in February. Hopefully that means things are picking up in companies served by those agencies."

Across Fresno County and its four neighboring Valley counties, the total workforce amounted to nearly 900,000 people. Of those, more than 771,000 were working, while an estimated 127,600 were unemployed.

Neither the official unemployment rate nor the numbers of unemployed count people who have dropped out of the workforce, including long-term unemployed who have given up their search for work.

Statewide, California now has about 1.5 million unemployed residents — 245,000 fewer than a year ago. The labor force has held steady at about 18.6 million people in that period.

The EDD reported that 1.2 million new jobs have been created in California since the economic recovery began in February 2010. The unemployment rate was then 12.4%.

San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties posted the state's lowest unemployment rates last month, hovering around 5%. Rural Imperial and Colusa counties have jobless rates above 20%.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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