County jobless rate record set

San Luis Obispo County’s unemployment rate in January reached its highest level since the state government began tracking employment data, a sign that the area is in for a slow recovery.

The unemployment rate in the first month of the year was 10.6 percent, compared to a revised 9.8 percent in December and 7.9 percent in January 2009, according to non-seasonally adjusted figures from the state’s Employment Development Department.

While the county’s jobless figures hit record-breaking territory, it had one of the lowest unemployment rates of all counties in California and ranked eighth behind neighboring Santa Barbara County.

It was also lower than the 13.2 percent statewide rate and was on par with the 10.6 percent national unemployment rate recorded in January.

“At the end of the year, you would expect things to stabilize, but we didn’t see that happen in January,” said Juan Millan, a labor market specialist for the state. “But in San Luis Obispo County, you’re doing OK. You’re faring well compared to other communities.”

The county lost a total of 5,200 nonfarm jobs from January 2009 to January 2010, and a total of 1,900 nonfarm jobs from December to January, according to the state. The industries hardest hit year-over-year included construction, trade, transportation and utilities, and professional and business services.

Government was the only sector to gain jobs in that time period.

However, the government sector lost 900 jobs from December 2009 to this past January. Trade, transportation and utilities lost 600 jobs, followed by 300 in leisure and hospitality, 200 in educational and health services, and 100 each in financial activities and professional and business services. Construction and manufacturing each gained jobs.

Millan attributed much of the evaporating jobs from December to January to the end of holiday hiring and tightening government budgets. The state government education category lost 400 jobs over the month, and state and local government lost 400 jobs as well.

But Brad Kemp, director of regional research for San Rafael-based Beacon Economics, says the state’s statistics only tell part of the story.

Kemp, whose firm presented the county’s UCSB Economic Forecast in November, said his seasonally adjusted figures prove that the county’s unemployment picture is more stable. Economists use seasonally adjusted data because it attempts to remove the influences of predictable seasonal patterns to show month-to-month employment and unemployment changes.

According to Kemp’s analysis, the county’s seasonally adjusted unemployment has hovered around 10 percent for four months in a row. The past two months, he said, have seen job growth. A total of 187 jobs were added to the labor force in December and 865 jobs were added in January, he said.

“We see a gain, which means something is changing,’’ he said. “It doesn’t tell me what is changing yet. But we are probably hitting the bottom. We are seeing a deceleration in job losses, and at some point in the next few months, we should expect to see more consistent job gains. Will they be big job gains? No.”

Kemp noted, however, that there are several factors that continue to weigh on recovery, including the real estate market, the loss of wealth by individuals and institutions, and additional government cuts.

Employers, many of whom have become accustomed to doing more with fewer resources, also may be reluctant to ramp up hiring. He’s confident this will change over the next year, albeit slowly.

Kathy Marcove, employment services specialist with Shoreline Workforce Development, operator of the county’s One-Stop Career Centers, said job seekers are being more realistic about how long their search may take. They are also recognizing that they can no longer blanket employers with résumés.

“Just being a good person is not enough at this point,’’ she said. “The ones that are getting the interviews are the ones that have a targeted job search. With so many more job seekers, it’s all in the employers’ hands.”