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WALL STREET, CALIFORNIA

L.A. County's Jobless Rate Plummets to 6%

Employment: The January numbers show a drop in film industry jobs was more than offset by gains in manufacturing.

March 03, 1998|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Providing strong evidence that Los Angeles County is participating more fully in California's economic growth, officials said Monday that the county's jobless rate plunged in January, to 6.0% from 6.7% the previous month, just a notch above the statewide rate of 5.9%.

Moreover, revised annual data from the Employment Development Department showed that Los Angeles County's payroll job growth ran at 2.5% last year, more than the 1.8% previously estimated. Employment in Los Angeles County's motion picture industry, as expected, stalled last year, but the county saw a surprisingly strong gain in manufacturing.

EDD officials said Friday that California created 479,800 nonfarm jobs last year, the most since 1984 and 32% more than initially recorded. The data for counties, released on Monday, indicated that Southern California is reaping more of its share of the state's bountiful harvest of jobs.

Southern California was led by San Diego and Orange counties, where payroll employment surged by more than 4% from December 1996 to December 1997, much higher than originally thought. Nonfarm employment in the Inland Empire increased by 4% last year, sparked by a boom in construction and housing-related jobs.

Ted Gibson, the state Finance Department's top economist, said San Diego County is benefiting from Mexico's vibrant economy as well as growth in the U.S. defense, tourism, biotech and communications industries.

San Diego County's jobless rate rose to 3.9% in January from 3.2%, but that was attributed to seasonal factors such as the loss of retail jobs after the holidays. (Jobless figures for California counties, with the exception of Los Angeles County, are not seasonally adjusted.)

Orange County's unemployment rate also rose last month, to 3.1% from 2.6% in December. But the county showed no signs of slowing down in January, as its payroll growth was up 5.3% from January 1996. For last year, state officials said, Orange County added about 19,000 more jobs than initially estimated. Analysts said that is because the county has a lot of start-ups and small firms, which are often missed by the EDD on a monthly basis.

The Inland Empire, comprising Riverside and San Bernardino counties, saw its jobless rate climb to 6.4% in January from 5.6% the previous month. But the area's economy is now seeing a burst of activity because of the housing buildup.

"1998 is starting out like 1989, a year we all look back on fondly," said John Husing, a longtime Inland Empire economist.

In Ventura County, the unadjusted jobless rate rose to 6.3% in January, up from 5.8%. Mark Schniepp, a regional economist at UC Santa Barbara, said the relatively high unemployment is due to farm-related seasonal layoffs. Overall, Schniepp said he is impressed with the county's 3.1% job growth last year.

Los Angeles County closed out last year with 3.96 million nonfarm payroll jobs--about 97,000 more than in December 1996. That's a growth rate of 2.5%, slightly less than the 2.8% for all California counties, but still higher than big cities like New York and Chicago.

Jack Kyser, economist at the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, said he was struck by the 3.5% gain in the county's manufacturing employment.

"You have this attitude that all the manufacturing went away, but now we're growing," he said, noting that Los Angeles County has overtaken Chicago as the biggest manufacturing center.

State statisticians made one notable downward revision to last December's data: 5,900 motion picture jobs were lost, which left the once-booming industry with a 0.5% decline in employment.

But economists noted that employment in that project-oriented industry is hard to track, and in any case, could bounce back soon.

"I don't think it signifies a red flag," said Patti Archuletta, director of the California Film Commission in Los Angeles. Although there has been a slowdown in the launching of big feature films, she said, production of commercials and television is up.

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