Job seekers wait in line to speak with a recruiter at the Green Jobs and Entrepreneurship… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Reporting from Sacramento and San Francisco — A hiring surge led by California's hallmark industries — high tech, movies and tourism — generated nearly 100,000 net new jobs in February and offered the strongest sign yet that the state economy is on the mend.
The 96,500-job jump was the biggest monthly increase since the current record system began in 1990, state officials said. California had added a paltry 700 jobs in January.
Some economists were surprised by the huge uptick and cautioned that it could be revised downward. Still, they stressed that the overall news was unequivocally good.
"California has finally joined the parade of economic recovery in the nation," said Sung Won Sohn, a professor of economics at Cal State Channel Islands. "We've gone through the economic inflection point where employment is beginning to rise at an accelerating rate."
The hiring growth in high tech and professional services, including manager and accountant positions, is particularly helpful, said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange. "The average wages and salaries are much higher than in retail and other sectors," he said. "This is the growth engine of our economy this year."
Nearly 40,000 net new jobs were created in the professional and business services category, which includes high-tech and temporary employment, according to the state's Economic Development Department.
The information sector, which includes movie and television production, added 15,500 net jobs; leisure and hospitality, 5,900; and trade and transportation, 9,100. Even construction, which dragged California down during the depths of the housing bust, added 15,500 net jobs last month.
The only area that saw a drop was public-sector jobs — 1,200 positions evaporated in February — as cash-strapped state and local governments slashed payrolls.
February's upturn could drive more hiring as employers in information technology realize that the recovery really is happening and that they cannot rely on increased productivity from existing workers to meet demand, Adibi said.
Legions of new tech workers were already showing up at marquee Silicon Valley employers. Google Inc. said in January that 2011 would be its biggest hiring year ever. Google's previous biggest hiring year was 2007, when it added nearly 6,200 people around the globe.
After Google announced its plan to hire, it received a flood of job applications — more than 75,000 in one week. Google would say only that "a significant percentage" of its employees work in California, but a person familiar with the breakdown said that more than a third of Google employees worked in-state.
The Internet search giant, which is expanding to mobile services, display advertising and business applications, faces competition from Silicon Valley rivals such as Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. Those firms are aggressively recruiting engineers and other workers.
"Facebook will be hiring throughout 2011 for all parts of the company," a spokesman said in an email. The company, which has 2,000 employees, is moving to a new campus in Menlo Park, Calif., that can hold 3,600.
Dice, a job-hunting website, said it now routinely has 5,000 technology job openings in Silicon Valley at any one time, up 41% from a year ago.
And the hiring wave is spreading south to Los Angeles. Bindu Reddy, chief executive of social media advertising start-up MyLikes, said she has opened a small office in Los Angeles because demand up north is "intensely crazy" for engineers. She landed a couple of former colleagues from Google. Meanwhile, Google itself is expanding its footprint in the Southland by leasing more than 100,000 square feet of office space in Venice.
Josh Persky, 28, was working for Fox Sports Radio in Los Angeles when he was laid off on his 26th birthday. He subsisted on unemployment benefits and odd jobs for two years before landing a job in January as an office manager with Causes, a San Francisco start-up that helps people donate money to charities via Facebook and elsewhere.
"Every engineer has three offers on the table," Persky said. "Every company in the technology industry is growing."
But all is not rosy on the California jobs front. Despite the latest upbeat numbers, the state still has a long way to go to get its employment situation back to health. The state has lost about 1.2 million jobs since July 2007.
California's unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of a percentage point in February, to 12.2%, from 12.4% in January. The national unemployment rate in February was 8.9%. California still has the nation's second-highest jobless rate: It trails only neighboring Nevada, whose rate is 13.6%.
"They say the economy is picking up, but if you really look around and talk to people on the street, it's the same," said Hugo Molina, 41, of Pomona, a home inspector who has had little work since the housing bust. Molina also has experience in construction, warehouse management and forklift and truck driving.