The era of double-digit unemployment in Sacramento has passed.
Unemployment in Sacramento fell to 9.7 percent last month, state officials said Friday, plunging six-tenths of a percentage point from August. It's the first time the jobless rate has been below 10 percent since the recession was in full throttle in January 2009.
A good chunk of the decline was due to seasonal factors, including schoolteachers returning to work, and some of the gains are likely to be reversed when the statistics get a further scrubbing. Nevertheless, economists said Sacramento is making real and sustainable progress.
"I haven't seen that single digit in a long time," said Jeff Michael, economist at the University of the Pacific. "The unemployment rate is definitely improving."
The statewide picture was more muddled. The Employment Development Department said the jobless rate fell four-tenths of a point, to 10.2 percent. But payroll growth considered a more reliable barometer of hiring was just 8,500 jobs in September, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the state's recovery has lost some of its spark. Employers in California added only 5,100 jobs in August.
Dennis Meyers, principal economist at the state Department of Finance, said California is being affected by the slowdown across the country, and in Europe and China.
"We got a pretty meager gain," Meyers said. "Things are still improving, just a more gradual pace than earlier in the year."
Michael Bernick, a former EDD director, said the drop in statewide unemployment was partly the result of a decline in labor force participation. Several thousand Californians left the job market and were no longer counted toward the unemployment rate.
The steep drop in Sacramento's unemployment rate carried an asterisk of sorts, too. The EDD said the biggest job gain in September was in government. Local public schools added 4,100 workers as classes resumed.
Michael said those numbers were unrealistically high, in light of all the reported school district layoffs. Some of those jobs will likely disappear when the numbers get revised next month, he said.
Nevertheless, he said, Sacramento's overall job growth is genuine. Unemployment has dropped substantially since peaking at 12.8 percent in January 2011.
"This isn't just seasonal; this is real improvement," he said.
Job seekers in Sacramento say they're getting a better reception than before.
"I'd say things were really tough a couple years back, but they've loosened up lately," said Wilbert Sands, a handyman. "You can find work out there if you're not picky."
Not that he's rolling in dough: Sands was among those this week attending a Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America program, where he was seeking help with his mortgage.
Career counselors at Sacramento State are encouraged by what they see. The university's job fair in late September drew 125 employers, and "we could have accommodated more if we had the space," said career center director Beth Merritt Miller. "We had a waiting list."
She said employers from different fields are stepping up their interviewing. "The recruiters are more positive than they were even six months ago," she said.
Several industries are showing considerable strength in Sacramento. Retail employment is up 4 percent from a year ago. Construction employment is up nearly 9 percent, although there are still tens of thousands of jobs missing from the boom era.
Home building executives said hiring is on the rise as home sales improve.
"We're climbing out," said Chris Cady of the Brice Group, a Granite Bay home building consultant. "It's all positive news at this point. Every new hire's a good hire."
Across the state, 6,400 public sector jobs disappeared last month. Some analysts said the layoffs will continue in earnest if Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed tax hike, Proposition 30, fails at the ballot box in November. Those layoffs could then drag down private sector firms as their customers cut spending.
"You'll see a trickle-down effect the wrong kind of trickle down," said Dwight Johnston, economist at the California Credit Union League.
The economic recovery remains uneven in California. In San Francisco, unemployment is 6.5 percent. It remains well into the double digits across much of the Central Valley.
California payrolls have grown 1.9 percent over the past year. That's a half-point better than the U.S. average. But at 10.2 percent, California unemployment in September was still the third-highest in the country, behind Nevada (11.8) and Rhode Island (10.5).