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‘Uncharted territory’ — Utah unemployment falls to a historic low of 1.9%

Despite a lack of available workers, the Beehive State still has added 59,200 jobs since 2020.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Salt Lake City billboard about employment, as seen Aug. 16, 2021. Utah's jobless rate fell to a historic low of 1.9% in December, its lowest level ever.

A lack of available workers pushed Utah’s unemployment rate to a record low of 1.9% in December, down from 2.1% the month before.

The jobless rate has kept to a steady downward trajectory since November 2020 but is now “historic,” Mark Knold, chief economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said Friday. The Beehive State’s economy has often led the country during the past decade in terms of growth and job creation, but its jobless rate has never been so tiny.

“This is uncharted territory,” Knold said, “in terms of such a low unemployment rate and gauging how much lower it can conceivably go.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Nationally, the rate was slightly more than double what it is in Utah, at 3.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nebraska’s unemployment is slightly lower than in Utah, but Knold said that state was seeing higher rates of workers dropping out of the workforce and halting their job searches. Utah’s economy, on the other hand, is adding jobs and moving more residents from being idled into active employment.

Utah’s economy has added 59,200 jobs since 2020 and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Knold said, and almost all of that two-year gain came in 2021.

“That it is in the midst of all the clamor about the difficulty of finding workers,” Knold said. “Imagine how much the Utah economy could additionally grow if it could find all the workers being sought.”

Employment has grown by 3.7% in Utah over two years, with nearly 1.65 million residents now actively working. Excluding government jobs, private-sector jobs have grown by 5% over the same period.

Two sectors of Utah economy — government jobs and those in natural resources and mining — are still below their employment levels before COVID-19. But the hardest-hit job sector in the pandemic — leisure and hospitality — turned a corner in December, Knold noted, climbing back to pre-pandemic employment levels.

“That is not to say all is well with this industry,” he said. “Many employers within [it] will still tell you they can’t find enough workers.”

People who worked before in restaurants, hotels and taverns and at entertainment and recreation venues are now “churning their way upward in pay and skills training,” he said, and taking jobs in other sectors.

“But finally,” Knold said, “just enough workers have been found to at least bring this industry back to where it was.”

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