The jobs engine was roaring in Utah’s four largest counties during the 12 months that ended in March, but wages continued to trail well behind the U.S. average, according to preliminary government figures released Tuesday.
Mark Knold, chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Services, cautioned that the gulf between vigorous job growth and sub-par compensation shouldn’t be an indictment of Utah’s economy. Instead, he thinks it speaks volumes about the distinctive structure of Utah’s labor force, which is much younger than the national average.
“The national average is similar to being a 50-year-old person. The Utah average is more like a 30-year-old person,” Knold said. “Who makes more money and why? The 50-year-olds, as a group, because of experience and tenure” on the job.
Employment shot up 4.2 percent in Davis and Utah counties from the end of March 2011 to the same month of this year, the U.S. Commerce Department said. In Salt Lake County, employment increased 3.5 percent, and in Weber County the year-over-year growth rate was 2.1 percent.
The four Wasatch Front counties — which account for 79.2 of all employment in the state — outpaced the national growth average of 1.8 percent in the same yearlong period, the department said.
Wage growth in the counties exceeded the 5.4 percent national gain from the first quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of this year. Even so, the average weekly wage that was actually paid to workers in each county fell considerably short of the U.S. average of $984.
Davis County wages surged 8.2 percent in the period. That blistering pace of wage growth was closely followed by Utah County’s 6.5 percent rate, Salt Lake County’s rate of 6.4 percent, and Weber County, at 6.2 percent.
Seen through a different prism, though, those growth rates still underscore the long-standing disparity between Utah and U.S. compensation. At $911, Salt Lake County came closest to the U.S. weekly average wage, but was still 7.4 percent below.
Davis County, at $763, had the second-highest average county wage in the state. Utah County came in third, at $724, followed by Weber County, at $682. Davis, Utah and Weber were 22.5 percent, 26.4 percent and 30.7 percent under the U.S. average, respectively.
Although Davis County employment growth ranked 10th among the 328 largest counties in the U.S. by percent change, its average weekly wage was only enough to rank it in the bottom 20 percent of all big counties — at No. 275. Similarly, Utah County’s average wage was at No. 303. Knold said that’s not surprising. Despite the preponderance of tech companies with high-paying jobs, Utah County’s population is the youngest in the country.
Weber County’s average wage ranked even lower. At No. 316, it was in the bottom 10 percent of all U.S. counties.
Only Salt Lake County, at No. 146, was in the top 50 percent of all counties, according to the department’s figures.
Knold isn’t alarmed by the counties’ low rankings, though.
“You shouldn’t be as dismayed as the numbers first make you feel. A portion of it is nothing more than the difference in age groups,” he said.
Average weekly wages in selected smaller Utah counties, first quarter 2012
Box Elder: $661
San Juan: $626
State average: $799
U.S. average: $984
Source: U.S. Commerce Department