ANAHEIM — Orange County's unemployment rate fell to 5.5% in April, its lowest level in more than a year, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday.
The decline from 6.2% in March was partly because of the good weather, economists said. As the summer season approaches, construction and farming pick up. And amusement parks and movie theaters begin hiring for a seasonal surge in business.
But economists did not see the new numbers as particularly good news, pointing to an overall decline last month in the total civilian work force.
"That indicates to me that people are still pretty pessimistic about the job market, so they aren't looking--or, even worse, they're leaving Orange County," said Anil Puri, co-director of Cal State Fullerton's Institute for Economic and Environmental Studies.
Still, Puri saw at least some cause for optimism in the improved jobless rate. "On a positive note, unemployment seems to be stabilizing," he said. "Our forecast is that we will continue to see modest improvement in the job picture. We seem to be at the tail end of job losses."
In total, jobs in the county grew by 3,400 from March to April. But in the preceding 12 months, employers in the county slashed 17,600 positions from their payrolls, with manufacturing, construction and high technology suffering the greatest losses. Those three segments of the economy account for almost 30% of the jobs in Orange County and have been hard hit by the general recession and by federal defense spending reductions.
Last month's rate of 5.5% announced Friday compared to 5.7% in April 1992 and 5.5% in March of last year.
The dip in the April jobless rate was in keeping with a national trend; U.S. and California jobless figures also dropped slightly from March to April.
And, as usual, Orange County fared better than the state and nation in the latest survey. Last month's jobless rate was 8.4% for California and 6.8% for the nation.
In the region, Los Angeles County posted a 9.4% unemployment rate; Riverside County' was 10.6%; San Bernardino County's, 9.1%; and San Diego County's, 6.9%.
Eleanor Jordan, state labor market analyst for Orange County, said such affluent cities as Newport Beach and Mission Viejo--which have jobless rates under 4%--offset unemployment statistics of 8% to 11% in more blue-collar communities such as Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Stanton.
But there does seem to be some stabilizing in certain industries, said Bruce DeVine, chief economist for the Southern California Assn. of Governments in Los Angeles.
The textile and apparel industry, in particular, is showing consistent improvement, he said. In Orange County, the apparel manufacturing sector has picked up 900 employees in the past year and now has 11,300 workers.
"Southern California is beginning to seize the lead in fashion," DeVine said. So when it comes to shopping for clothes made in Orange County, areas of the nation now enjoying improved economies diffuse the local lack of consumer confidence, he said.
But it is too early to see an economic turnaround in Friday's numbers, economists said.
"For this to be the beginning of an upturn, unemployment would have to stabilize at 5% or 5.5% for a few months," DeVine said.
Rob Valletta, assistant professor of economics at UC Irvine, said the economy is still "waiting for a jump-start."
"The worst of the recession is over--companies have cleared out their work forces and dismissed as many employees as they're going to," he said. "Employers aren't still firing people, but nor are they in a position to rehire or replace people they let go. Essentially, they are holding steady, waiting for a sign of recovery."
O.C. Jobless Rate Drops
Seasonal hiring helped lower Orange County's unemployment rate in April. How the county compares:
Orange County: 5.5%
Los Angeles County: 9.4%
United States: 6.8%
Source: California Employment Development Department