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Utah jobless rate falls as employment accelerates

Published March 22, 2013 9:43 pm

Economy • State's unemployment now down to 5.2% as hiring accelerates.
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Utah's jobs engine roared in February, as employment jumped 4 percent compared to the same time in 2012 — the highest year-over-year increase since June 2007.

The increase produced 49,200 new jobs in the 12-month period, raising total payroll employment to almost 1.27 million people, the Utah Department of Workforce Services said Friday.

"It's a strong number, but it's a believable number. It's a number that is supported with all of the data that we are observing," said Carrie Mayne, the department's chief economist, referring to sales tax figures and construction permit numbers from around the state.

As the jobs were being created, the unemployment rate in Utah slipped to 5.2 percent from 5.4 percent in January. A year ago, the state jobless rate stood at 5.7 percent.

Nationally, the unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in February. Employment grew just 1.5 percent from February 2012.

In Utah, all sectors added jobs, with the exception of mining, which was flat compared to February 2012, the department said.

The accelerating speed of job creation and dwindling unemployment rate hasn't gone unnoticed at BioFire Diagnostics Inc., a Salt Lake City company that develops disease diagnosis technologies for hospitals and physicians. The number of job applicants is down, even though BioFire is hiring aggressively.

"That rings true to me. There's usually a correlation between the number of applicants we get for open positions," said Randy Rasmussen, BioFire's president and chief operating officer. Over the last nine months, the company received about 90 applications a week. Lately, the number has dropped to about 60, he said.

BioFire has 450 people on its payroll, including 100 people hired since last summer. Most jobs were manufacturing positions, although the company also filled engineering, software, biochemistry and sales and marketing spots that opened as the company grew.

BioFire expects to add another 100 employees this year. Fueling the need is growing demand for its latest product, a device that tests for the presence of 17 viruses and three bacteria that cause upper respiratory illnesses. The test simplifies and speeds up the test, which can now be done at virtually any hospital instead of only at sophisticated labs, Rasmussen said.

So far, the shrinking pool of applicants hasn't hurt the company, he said.

"In general, there are always skilled people when you need. In any case, we certainly prefer a healthy economy," he said.

Juliette Tennert, chief economist for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the jobs report suggests that Utah's economy has put the recession behind it.

"Based on the job count, Utah has recovered from the recession, and we are still making strides in the unemployment situation," Tennert said.

In December, Utah recovered all of some 90,000 jobs that were lost during the recession. Last month's total employment of almost 1.27 million jobs surpassed the previous peak of nearly 1.25 million in February 2008, two months after the recession began.

pbeebe@sltrib.com

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