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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Jobless Rate Falls to Record Low

Economy: County's April unemployment dips to 3.5%. Growth in service industry, construction, farm and manufacturing sectors is credited.

May 13, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Continuing a seven-year decline, Ventura County's unemployment rate hit a record low in April as local employers added 3,600 new jobs, about half seasonal positions in agriculture.

The state's Employment Development Department reported the county's jobless rate at 3.5% last month, down from 3.8% in March and far below the peak of 7.9% in 1993.

The rate is remarkable because it has come without inflation, which some economists expect with a very low unemployment.

"Things just keep getting better," said Bill Watkins, an analyst with the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project. "Everybody worries about inflation, but there's no strong evidence it's really happening."

About 392,500 Ventura County residents are employed, up from 388,900 in March, according to the state's figures. The county's unemployment was 14th lowest among the state's 58 counties. The statewide rate for April was 4.7%.

Analysts attributed the low rate to steady growth in the service industry, construction, farm and manufacturing sectors.

"What sets you apart [from other counties] is that the manufacturing sector is continuing to add jobs," said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

"Since the focus is on technology, you're seeing a continued increase."

The service industry added about 900 jobs, government posted a gain of 200 jobs, and construction jumped by 400 jobs from March to April.

In telling year-to-year comparisons, most of the county's job gain was due to growth in nonfarm industries such as construction and the service industry, which both grew at a rate of about 10%.

A second upbeat report released Friday found the county's commercial vacancy rates still tight.

Analysts at CB Richard Ellis in Ventura said despite the current boom, developers are being careful not to overbuild stores, office buildings and industrial parks, a tactic that got them into trouble when the recession hit a decade ago.

"We're still going strong, but we want to make sure we have a nice, strong landing," said Jerry Pelton, managing director for the firm's Ventura office. "We don't want to encourage too much construction. But we don't have a lot of land to be developed anyway."

Space in stores and shops continues to be the tightest category of commercial real estate in the county, and is getting tighter, with vacancy rates hovering at 4.9%, down from 5.8% for the last three months of 1999.

Available office space is at a relatively steady 12% throughout the county, but is being snapped up at an extremely fast pace. In the first quarter of this year, nearly 650,000 square feet was leased or purchased--most of that in the east county--contrasted with an average of about 250,000 for each quarter last year.

That growth is mostly due to expansion by companies already in the county, CB Richard Ellis Vice President Chuck Engel said.

"The east county is just unbelievable. We're filling space faster than it's being built," he said. "It's just an explosion in technology and e-commerce."

Although the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates again when it meets next week, economists said the hike would be unlikely to halt the busy commercial real estate market.

"It might affect commercial building a bit," Kyser said. "But the nonresidential building community has really exercised a lot of restraint."

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