Despite labor pinch, Utah’s economy expands even as joblessness falls to record low

Unemployment rate drops to 2.1% — half the national mark of 4.2%.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) 'Help Wanted' signs dot the Salt Lake Valley as Utah's unemployment rate keeps falling.

Utah’s economy kept growing in November even as the number of available workers shriveled — as it has every month for more than a year.

The state’s unemployment rate inched down again, to 2.1%, last month — a new record low — after hitting 2.2% in October.

The Beehive State’s jobless rate was half the national mark of 4.2% and well below where it was in February 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Nationwide, only Nebraska’s rate was currently lower, at 1.8%.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“These seem like contradictory forces, yet the Utah economy continues to expand,” said Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “Our economy cannot grow like this unless it is finding the labor it needs. So far that challenge is being met.”

Nongovernmental employment in Utah is 4.7% higher than it was in November 2019, according to Knold, after adding 57,900 jobs over the course of two years of economic turbulence.

That growth — the highest in the nation — mirrors several other measures indicating the state’s relative economic strength in recovering from its lows in early 2020.

In a separate announcement Friday, officials with the Salt Lake Chamber noted that consumer confidence among Utahns remains stable and retail sales continue to grow compared to last year — even as COVID-19 variants evolve.

“Utah’s robust economic rebound shows what smart planning, public health awareness, and strong fundamentals can achieve: an economic revival to lead the country,” Derek Miller, the chamber’s CEO and president, said in a statement.

Miller and others credited smart planning by government leaders, public health awareness and Utah’s strong fundamentals going into the coronavirus crisis.

“While some headwinds remain, Utah’s economy has shown stable consumer demand, confidenc, and steady health outcomes heading into the holiday season,” added Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “We continue to weather the blows of the pandemic and exude strength with our business and community leaders showing the way.”

But, as has been the pattern for more than a year, the rebound is somewhat uneven across various industries. Eight of 10 sectors have gained, while two have lost jobs.

The trade, transportation and utilities; professional and business services; and construction sectors are up by a total of 47,300 jobs compared to two years ago. Leisure and hospitality and the mining and natural resources sectors are down by 2,500 jobs.

The latest numbers show total employment in the state is now at 1,646,900 and roughly 34,500 Utahns are currently out of work.