Dan Walters

California’s jobless rolls cut in half, but gains have been uneven

Californians were hurting during the Great Recession, as unemployment climbed to more than 2 million workers. In this 2009 photo, unemployed Sergio Fuentes, right, gets some help from a state worker for a job at the Employment Development Department in San Jose. Jobless rolls have since declined by more than half, but figures show employment gains have been very uneven.
Californians were hurting during the Great Recession, as unemployment climbed to more than 2 million workers. In this 2009 photo, unemployed Sergio Fuentes, right, gets some help from a state worker for a job at the Employment Development Department in San Jose. Jobless rolls have since declined by more than half, but figures show employment gains have been very uneven. Associated Press file

More than a million Californians are unemployed – which sounds like a bad thing, until you look at the details.

As strange as it seems, having 1.1 million jobless workers, as the state Employment Development Department says, is pretty good news.

That’s less than half of the unemployment rolls during the depths of the Great Recession just a few years ago, when the jobless rate topped 12 percent.

It’s down to 5.7 percent now, and over the past year, the state has seen a half-percent decrease in the rate and a net employment increase of 274,000 jobs.

That’s the big picture. But a deeper data dive provides a more nuanced view, indicating that the state’s recovery has been very uneven.

For one thing, although our job creation rate was the nation’s seventh highest over the last year, the growth in middle-income private sector jobs has been scant, and manufacturing employment has dropped.

For another, California is still tied with South Carolina for the 15th highest jobless level.

Our “labor force participation rate” is near its all-time low. Just 61.9 percent of working-age Californians are either holding jobs or looking for them.

Even after adjusting for those still in school, early retirees, and stay-at-home moms and dads, millions of Californians who could be in the labor force aren’t.

Of those who want to work, California has the nation’s fourth highest rate of underemployment, 11.7 percent of its labor force. The Bureau of Labor Statistics measure includes not only the jobless, but those working part time involuntarily or “marginally attached” to the labor force.

While the booming, nine-county San Francisco Bay Area has unemployment rates below 5 percent (3.3 percent in San Mateo), six California counties are 10 percent or higher, topped by Imperial’s 23.7 percent.

The Bay Area, with less than 20 percent of the state’s population, is home to 26 percent of its jobs – heavily weighted toward high-paying work in finance, technology and information services.

Although Los Angeles County added more than twice as many jobs in the last year as the Bay Area, the south state is weighted toward jobs with lower skills and lower pay, particularly those in health care, social services, and travel and food services.

An Employment Development Department analysis of the Los Angeles job market projects that over the next half-decade, demand for employees with high school diplomas, or less, will outstrip the need for workers with higher educations by more than 2-to-1.

If the Bay Area and Los Angeles County are the two extremes of the state’s urban employment picture, the two other big Southern California counties, San Diego and Orange, appear to be somewhere in the middle, with fairly strong, broadly based job growth.

Meanwhile, rural California still hurts. Counties with unemployment rates at 10 percent or above are all in the state’s interior farm belt, from Imperial County on the south to Colusa County on the north – and most have seen their unemployment rates rise slightly in the past year.

The biggest question about California’s employment picture is whether the recovery has peaked, and another recession – even a mild one – is on the horizon.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been warning that we’re overdue for a downturn. There are some data to support his fear – particularly economic turmoil in the global economy, with which California has a very close relationship.

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