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Sonoma County jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 2:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 2:44 p.m.

The unemployment rate in Sonoma County fell to 6.5 percent in April, reaching its lowest level in nearly five years, as hotels and wineries added staff for the summer season and employers filled positions that were eliminated during the recession.

The change from last April marked the largest year-over-year drop in the jobless rate since the economic downturn began in 2008. It was the 11th straight month that the total number of jobs in Sonoma County was higher than the prior year, according to data from the state Employment Development Department.

The jobless rate was down from a revised 7.3 percent in March, and was well below the year-ago estimate of 8.7 percent, the state reported Friday.

A decline in unemployment is typical this time of year, but it was a steeper drop than usual, said Linda Wong, North Bay labor market consultant for the EDD.

“Looking at the historic unemployment rates for Sonoma County, it appears that this is the lowest April unemployment rate since 2008, back during the downturn,” Wong said. “It's interesting to see that it's back down to that level.”

Compared to last year, there were 5,700 more jobs in the county in April. Local government added 1,400 jobs over the year, retail added 700 jobs and the construction sector added 500 positions.

“We're seeing this month after month,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “It's a fairly broad-based recovery, and the sectors that were hardest hit are coming back.”

Including the self-employed and domestic workers, there were 240,600 people working in April, while 16,800 were counted as unemployed. Local industries reported a work force of 178,300 people.

Employers around the county have been adding more entry-level positions, Stone said.

“That's another good sign,” Stone said. “People may put off hiring, because they think a higher-level person can do both jobs, but now there may be more need for a lower-level person to come in.”

Some employers are still trying to hire senior level professionals who can also handle day-to-day tasks, which can be challenging, said Erica Huggins, branch manager for staffing firm Robert Half International, which covers Sonoma, Mendocino, Marin and part of Napa Valley.

“The market is increasingly becoming a candidate-driven market, which causes employers to come up with retention solutions to fill those specialized roles,” Huggins said. “So that buzz is out there on the candidate side. We're seeing more counter-offers ... Candidates have more bravery to ask for what they would like to get from their career.”

Employees are increasingly asking for raises, flexible hours and the ability to work remotely, Huggins said. The industries with the most active hiring are wine, hospitality, property management and health care, and senior level accountants and controllers and entry-level billing clerks are in demand, she said.

The Graton Resort & Casino also has been interviewing applicants for the 2,000 jobs it plans to fill.

On the flip side, insurance industry professionals are still having a hard time finding work after the departure of State Farm in 2011, Huggins said.

Compared to last month, the total number of jobs remained relatively unchanged. The leisure and hospitality industry added 300 jobs in April and the manufacturing sector added 200 jobs, mostly in the wine industry. Meanwhile, the professional and business services sector lost 300 positions and the trade, transportation and utilities sector lost 200 jobs during the month, although both sectors had more jobs than the same time last year.

Marin County again had the lowest jobless rate in the state, with 4.6 percent, while Sonoma County had the eighth-lowest jobless rate.

Lake County came in 44th place with a 12.8 percent unemployment rate and Mendocino County ranked 18th with an 8 percent jobless rate. Napa County was in fifth place with 5.9 percent unemployment.

Statewide, the unemployment rate was 9 percent in April, down from 9.4 percent in March.

Solid hiring helped lower unemployment rates in 40 U.S. states last month, the most since November. The declines show the job market is improving throughout most of the country.

The Labor Department said Friday that unemployment rates increased in only three states: Louisiana, Tennessee and North Dakota. Rates were unchanged in seven states.

Nationwide, employers added 165,000 jobs in April and the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.5 percent. The economy has added an average of 208,000 jobs a month since November, up from only 138,000 a month in the previous six months.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story)

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