ANAHEIM — Orange County's unemployment rate dropped slightly to 6.2% in March, but it is still higher than it was a year ago.
The state Employment Development Department estimated Monday that 86,200 people were unemployed across the county.
While the rate slid from 6.5% in February, it's too early to tell if unemployment will continue to drop.
That's because the county's unemployment rate usually drops or stays the same from February to March every year, said Eleanor Jordan, state labor market analyst for the county.
The reason, says Jordan: Local amusement parks--Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm--begin to hire summer help as their busy season approaches. Construction usually picks up, too, as the weather improves. It was one of the biggest gainers for the month, up 1,400 jobs.
But like the rest of California, the county is still hurting from a slumping housing market and cutbacks in defense spending.
For instance, the construction industry is still down 4,600 jobs from a year ago. Makers of durable goods, including computers and defense products such as missiles, are down nearly 9,000 jobs.
Last year was a bad year for the county, and yet this month's figures look worse. The unemployment rate in March, 1992, was 5.5%, compared to 6.2% now. And 11,000 fewer people--75,300--were out of a job then.
Yet, local economists say, there is some hope.
Orange County will probably end the year up 5,000 to 10,000 jobs--inconsequential in a county with nearly 1.4 million workers, but better than last year's net loss of jobs, according to Robert Valletta, an assistant professor of economics at UC Irvine and one of the authors of the Orange County Employment Forecast.
"We're in a holding pattern," he said.
The state's unemployment rate also fell in March, to 9.4% from 9.8%. But the news there wasn't really encouraging, either: The drop was probably due mostly to discouraged people giving up looking for work or leaving the state, economists said.
That was also true of Orange County: While 2,000 more people went to work here in March, another 2,400 either dropped out of the job race or left the county.
The nation's unemployment rate, meanwhile, was stuck at 7% in March. Many companies nationwide are making do with fewer employees. Still, many parts of the nation are recovering from the recession more rapidly than California.
When does the housing market come back? Not until buyers can see the economy improving and jobs growing, says Dennis W. Macheski, research director of accounting firm Price Waterhouse's real estate consulting group in Costa Mesa.
That won't happen until at least the end of the year, he says. Meanwhile, the demand for housing is growing but remains pent up while people wait to see which way the economy will go.
"And so far we're not getting much worse, but we're not getting any better," Macheski says. "We're kind of bobbling along the bottom."
The county's unemployment rate in March dropped slightly, matching the 1992 yearly average of 6.2%