Utah's job numbers, wages match national struggles
County employment numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics verified what state economist Mark Knold has said for months: As the U.S. economy goes, so goes Utah's economy.
Utah's four largest counties had 2.2 percent fewer jobs in the first quarter of 2010 than in the same period a year earlier. Nationally, the decline was 2.1 percent.
Utah's wage levels also were close to the national mark, rising 0.3 percent compared to the U.S. rate of 0.8 percent, the bureau said.
"Historically, Utah outperforms the United States. But right now we're joined at the hip," said Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
"Eventually, we will get back to our Utah-unique, above-the-national-average level," he added, "but we can't until the overall national economy gets better."
The national picture did not look good in the Labor Statistics report, which noted that 296 of the country's 326 "large counties" those with employment exceeding 75,000 lost jobs in the 12-month period.
While all four of Utah's large counties did too, Salt Lake (-1.8 percent) and Davis (-0.3 percent) performed better than the national average. Utah County (-2.4 percent) and Weber County (-3.1 percent) did worse.
"I'm not surprised Weber was lower because its manufacturing industry is more important to it than in other counties, and that was one of the hardest hit industries in this recession," Knold said.
Similarly, construction in Utah County dropped off abruptly during 2009.
"Utah County was a heavy building area in the last few years, so naturally it had a little harder downfall too," he added.
Knold puts more stock in these quarterly statistics than in the monthly surveys the bureau uses to estimate Utah's jobless rate. These figures are more accurate because they are based on unemployment insurance claims.
He places less confidence in the year-over-year wage comparison.
"I don't like quarterly snapshots of wages," Knold said. "I like a full year."
Still, bureau figures showed that wages in Davis County rose slightly more than the national average (0.9 percent compared to 0.8 percent). Salt Lake County almost kept pace (at 0.6 percent), while jobs in Weber County paid 0.3 percent more. Pay in Utah County dipped 0.2 percent.
"Utah always has wage levels lower than the national average," Knold said. He attributed that primarily to Utah's young population. People age 25 to 35, the state's largest demographic group, simply do not make as much money as the 50-65-year-olds who make up the largest segment of other states' work forces.
Workers in Salt Lake County, whose 551,000 jobs represent almost half of Utah's 1,135,793 total, earned an average of $827 a week in March. That was second to Emery County, where high-paying jobs at PacifiCorp's power plants helped boost the average weekly wage to $836.
Garfield County had the lowest wages, $471 a week, $1 less than Wayne County.
"That concerns me, but doesn't surprise me," said Justin Fischer, Garfield's economic development director. "We have a seasonal economy based on tourism. Because this is a place people want to work, wages are lower."
The county is trying to boost wages with natural resources' jobs, Fischer added, citing hopes of Panguitch becoming a hub for haul trucks carrying coal from a surface mine opening near Alton.
Utah's best pay*
Emery County • $836
Salt Lake • $827
Duchesne • $787
Uintah • $757
Box Elder • $747
Utah's lowest pay
Garfield • $471
Wayne • $472
Sanpete • $485
Rich • $490
Grand • $497
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics