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Utah continued adding jobs in February

Published March 23, 2012 6:17 pm

Unemployment • Rate remains at 5.7% in February; nearly all sectors create positions.
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Utah's unemployment rate held at 5.7 percent February, although job growth did increase, driven by nearly every sector of the state's economy.

The unemployment rate was unchanged from January but remained significantly lower than the national level of 8.3 percent.

The number of jobs added in the state was up 2.5 percent from the same month last year, for a 12-month increase of 30,100 jobs, the Utah Department of Workforce Services said Friday.

All of Utah's industrial sectors added jobs last month with the exception of government, which was unchanged from a year ago.

"We're looking at pretty good job growth, and we are one of the top five states in the country," said Mark Knold, chief economist at Workforce Services. "But we still are well below our long-term average annual growth rate of 3.1 percent. So we have a ways to go yet."

Knold said he doesn't expect the state to return to those levels until there is significant improvement in the housing market — something he isn't anticipating will happen until at least next year.

"We still need the housing market to wake up and join in the party," he said. "And while we are seeing some signs of improvement — foreclosure numbers are backing off, home sales are up a bit and homebuilders are a little more optimistic — I don't think the housing market is ready to join in the dance just yet."

Knold said home prices have yet to hit bottom, but once they do, the broader rebound will begin.

Data from Workforce Services indicated that the industry leading Utah's economic recovery is professional and business services.

Approximately 6,000 new jobs have been added to that sector in the past 12 months, with nearly all having appeared in high-paying professional and technical positions such as legal services, computer systems design, consulting and market research.

"It is an indication how our economy has been developing over the past 10 to 20 years," Knold said, explaining that such higher paying jobs are desirable because high earnings tend to trickle down though the economy and stimulate other levels of consumer spending.

The education and health care sector grew by 4,800 positions, manufacturing jobs by a similar number and trade and transportation by 4,000.

Utah's natural resources industry grew by 1,100 positions, the department said, largely tied to natural gas and oil exploration and production activities in the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah.

Financial services, which was particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, also is starting to rebound. Approximately 3,000 jobs were created in that sector of the past 12 months, although total employment still remains below its pre-recession peak.

"Construction is also showing that its worst days are probably behind it and is starting to put workers back onto its payrolls. Approximately 2,900 more construction jobs were observed in February than there were 12 months ago, and this without any notable contribution yet from the homebuilding market," the department said.

Compared with Utah, many other states have much higher jobless rates. And although that suggests there are large pools of available workers elsewhere that growing companies may want to tap into, Utah may not be at a disadvantage in attracting new businesses.

"Our unemployment rate actually helps us because it is looked upon as a sign of the state's pro-business environment," said Sophi DiCaro, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement that he was "encouraged" by job creation over the past 12 months. "But there are still about 76,000 Utahns who need a job, and I think about those families every day," he said.

steve@sltrib.com

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