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State's Job Market Jumps in January

Economy: The news isn't all good. California's unemployment rate inches up, and O.C.'s is the highest in six years.

February 23, 2002|MARLA DICKERSON and STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Providing hope that much of California is coming out of its economic lull, officials reported Friday that the state gained 30,200 jobs in January, the biggest monthly increase in a year.

The news in the jobs report wasn't all upbeat. The state's unemployment rate crept higher, and the jobless rate in Orange County rose to its highest level in six years.

Although it remains one of the lowest in the state, Orange County's jobless rate climbed to 3.8% from a minuscule 2.4% in the same month last year, signaling that the local economic engine is losing some of its steam.

The state's unemployment rate climbed to 6.2% in January, up from 6.1% the previous two months, reaching its highest level in more than four years. By contrast, the national jobless rate fell to 5.6% last month from 5.8% in December.

Still, analysts said the California unemployment figure was pushed up not by layoffs but an influx of new job hunters who had dropped off the state's radar screen--a phenomenon that often signals the beginning of recovery.

Friday's figures, which also included a reassessment of last year's economic performance, showed that December's job market was better than previously reported, with California picking up 10,900 jobs. Earlier, officials reported that the state lost 600 jobs in December, following losses in each of the three previous months.

January's job gains were spread across a variety of industries, including services, retailing, construction, government and non-durable goods manufacturing. Analysts said the net job growth points to the resilience of the California economy, and provides more evidence that the downturn may be short-lived.

"This is just tremendous," said Howard L. Roth, chief economist for the California Department of Finance. "You'd be hard-pressed to say this [is] an economy in recession."

In Los Angeles County, unemployment remained at 6.3% for a second consecutive month.

Orange County's 3.8% jobless rate, which is not adjusted for seasonal factors, can be traced in part to the loss of retail jobs after the holiday season. The rate stood at 3.2% in December.

The county's higher rate also reflects layoffs in such sectors as manufacturing and high tech, economists said. Yet the county added 16,600 jobs over the last 12 months--a meager growth rate of 1.2%--but one of the few to show a gain, economists noted.

"Economic growth has slowed down, but Orange County is not in recession,'' said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University.

San Diego's jobless rate, also one of the lowest in the state, rose to 3.9% last month from 3.3% in December.

The rise in the jobless level was widespread, with 57 of California's 58 counties reporting increases. Still, the Bay Area continues to be the state's weakest region. Largely because of the relative strength of the overall Southern California economy--particularly in the counties surrounding Los Angeles--the state has lost less momentum than the rest of the country since the U.S. recession began in March.

In fact, Roth said it is debatable whether California actually ever fell into recession. Although there is no formal definition of a state recession, it normally is a period of six months of continuing job losses.

Roth's upbeat outlook stemmed in part from an additional employment report released Friday, an annual reassessment of employment figures known as "benchmarking." The new figures showed that California did not lose jobs in back-to-back quarters, as had been thought, and that the state overall lost fewer jobs than previous calculations.

The official job loss figure for 2001 stands at 26,100, versus the previously reported decline of 38,100.

The last time California's jobless rate matched last month's level was in October 1997, when it also was 6.2%. The state employment figures, and the numbers for Los Angeles County, are adjusted for seasonal trends such as the January layoff after the holiday season. The figures for other counties are not adjusted, in part because of the small sampling on which those estimates are based.

Among other Southern California counties, whose rates are not adjusted for seasonal trends, the jobless rates were as follows: Riverside, 5.6% last month, up from 5.0% in December and 4.9% a year earlier. San Bernardino, 5.3% last month, up from 4.5% in December and 4.7% a year earlier. Ventura, 5.4% last month, up from 5.0% in December and 4.6% a year earlier.

*

Times Staff Writer Daryl Strickland contributed to this report.

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