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Ventura County

Firms Upbeat About Future

Survey: Employer confidence in the county's business climate is up, and some executives expect to see new hiring this year.

April 30, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a gloomy 2001, Ventura County employers are sounding an upbeat chord and increasingly planning to hire new workers, according to a study released Monday.

UC Santa Barbara's quarterly survey of employer confidence found that officials at about half of 88 responding businesses thought their firms were better off during the first three months of 2002 than a year before. Only one-quarter thought they were worse off.

Nearly 60% of respondents said the next six months will bring still better news, while about 10% thought things would get worse.

Across the board, employer attitudes have not rated so high since late 2000, when the 1990s boom crashed into the recession of 2001.

"It's a big swing up--much more positive than we've seen nationwide," said Bill Watkins, director of UCSB's Economic Forecast Project. "And it's a pretty dramatic reversal from the fourth quarter of last year."

Local employers staggered in 2001 even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and finally cut jobs late in the year for the first time since 1996. But recent employment figures have shown the steady rebound reflected in the UCSB survey.

The county's jobless rate dropped to 4.6% in March. Jobs were up 3,200 compared with a year before.

"The firms are saying the bottom has passed," Watkins said. "It occurred in the third and fourth quarters of last year. Now they're pretty positive, and some of these results rank right up there with those in the boom year of 2000."

For example, nearly two-thirds of responding firms thought they would see improved conditions in the local economy by summer and two in five thought the economy would support new hires during the next year.

Both figures were the highest since 1999.

Executives were more cautious about their own hiring practices.

About one-third said they would expand over the next year, while 62% said they expected to remain the same size. Few expected to downsize.

"Hiring more employees is a big commitment for a businessman," Watkins said. "But they've gone from thinking employment was going to decrease to thinking it's going to increase."

In fact, before the recent survey, respondents had said jobs would decline for eight straight quarters, Watkins said.

Now, they say the future is bright.

"Everyone tends to think that over the next five years we're going to be all right," Watkins said. "You've got to have hope, right?"

Results from businesses in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties were similar to Ventura County's, Watkins said.

Indeed, the Central Coast fared much better than the state and nation during last year's recession and even outperformed bigger regions in a healthy Southern California, Watkins said.

The local economy is riding out the downturn relatively well because heavy manufacturing and Internet businesses, the nation's weakest sectors, are not big employers in Ventura County.

UCSB has conducted its Business Sentiment Survey each quarter for about a decade.

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