Fresno County is bustling. Employment hits level not seen since Great Recession

A worker tilts up a stack of lumber during construction on a home in a northeast Fresno development in this 2016 file photo.  Employment in construction rose to 19,500 in September 2018, a gain of about 1,500 from a year earlier.
A worker tilts up a stack of lumber during construction on a home in a northeast Fresno development in this 2016 file photo. Employment in construction rose to 19,500 in September 2018, a gain of about 1,500 from a year earlier. Fresno Bee file photo

It’s been 10 years since Fresno County and much of the nation slipped into the economic shredder now known as the Great Recession. Now, as a slow but steady recovery continues, there are more people than ever with jobs in the county, and the unemployment rate here is lower than it’s been in almost 30 years.

September is the first month since 1990 that Fresno County’s unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent, according to estimates released Friday by the state Employment Development Department. Total civilian employment was about 428,600, the largest number of people holding jobs recorded since 1990, when the state began tracking under its current system. That translates to an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent.

“September is sort of a typical low point of the year (for unemployment rates), but regardless of that typicality, this is the lowest September on record,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at Stockton’s University of the Pacific. “We think it could even go a bit lower and average under 7 percent for the whole year next year, and that would be another record for Fresno.”

The picture was similar across neighboring counties in the central San Joaquin Valley. Merced County’s September unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, and Kings County’s 6.0 percent, also reflect the best figures reported since 1990. Madera County’s rate of 5.4 percent was better than any month since September 2006, at the height of the pre-recession housing boom, and Tulare County’s rate of 7.9, while much higher than its neighbors, was the lowest rate since October 2006.

“August and September are historically the months with the lowest unemployment rates because of the seasonal swings in agriculture and schools,” said Steven Gutierrez, a labor market specialist with the Employment Development Department in Fresno. Still, he added, “the overall trends seem to be going in a positive direction; the year-over-year totals show almost every industry reporting bigger numbers (of jobs).”

Gutierrez said additional workers could be reflected in coming months because two major new employers, Amazon and Ulta Beauty. Each opened new distribution warehouses in Fresno this summer but have not yet been included in the state’s survey of businesses to calculate industry employment in the county.

Also, seasonal workers being hired by retail businesses for the holidays won’t yet show up in the employment estimates. “In retail, we’re seeing people have a little more discretionary income in their pocket, and that will probably allow employers to do more seasonal hiring than normal,” Gutierrez said.

Prior to the recession, the lowest unemployment rate seen in Fresno County was in September 2006, when the rate was 6.4 percent. During the peak of the recession, joblessness reached its highest rate of 18.4 percent in February 2010.

September was also the 84th consecutive month of year-over-year improvement in which the unemployment rate was lower than it was 12 months prior.

“We’re now at 10 years since the start of the Great Recession, and we’re deep into a long period of sustained growth,” said Michael, the UOP economist. “At the same time, we’ve got slower population growth and much slower labor force growth.” He added that the Valley experienced sizable gains in the number of people in the labor force in the 1990s and 2000s.

Fresno County’s total labor force – the sum of people with jobs and people available and looking for work – was estimated at 455,400 in September, down slightly from a peak of more than 457,000 in July. The available labor force does not include people who have dropped out of the job market, including those described as “discouraged workers” who have given up their search for work.

Michael discounted a lower rate of labor force participation as a major factor in the lower unemployment rates. “Some people are getting older and retiring, and younger workers are a little slower to join the labor force than in the past, and they’re joining at a lower rate,” he said. “Especially during the recession, people were coming into working age but there weren’t many job opportunities to enter the labor force.”

Michael and Gutierrez both said the employment gains are widespread across many industries. Out of 11 major industry sectors, only three saw year-over-year declines in numbers of employees, Gutierrez said.

For all of the improvement, however, unemployment rates in Fresno County and the Valley remain higher – as they historically have been – than both the statewide and national rates. California’s unemployment rate in September was 3.9 percent, while the national rate was 3.6 percent.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.