County unemployment drops slightly to 15.9 percent

Farm equipment maker needs more employees

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 21, 2012 

— Merced County's job outlook is seeing improvements as unemployment dropped to 15.9 percent in August from a revised 17.3 percent in July.

The jobless rate is the lowest since August 2009.

While more jobs gains are expected with the announcements that a new food processing plant is coming to the city of Merced and a crane manufacturer will locate at Castle Commerce Center, there's another bright spot for the local economy.

Laird Manufacturing, a Merced company that sells cattle-feeding equipment, has seen a spike in business and is expanding.

Isaac Isakow, co-owner and general manager of Laird, said his company is expecting production to stay strong for at least the next 12 to 18 months.

The company, at 531 S. Highway 59, plans to expand to a 48,000-square-foot shop at 1030 Stuart Drive -- near the Merced airport -- to increase manufacturing. Laird will still occupy the 12,000-square-foot Highway 59 location, but it'll be used mainly as a retail outlet for sales, service and parts departments.

"We're trying to double production over the next year," Isakow said. "That's one of our aims. Last year was the best year we'd ever had, and we're about 35 percent ahead of last year."

Isakow said the agricultural sector is one of the few bright spots in the economy and continues to perform.

Laird has also focused on increasing exports over the past few years and now sells to customers in Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Africa and across the United States.

"We've worked hard at developing these new markets in the last couple of years," Isakow said. "That effort and foundation that we've laid in these new markets is also now coming to fruition."

The company is looking to hire 12 to 15 people "ASAP," he said. Much of the work will be geared toward people with welding, electrical, hydraulics, quality control and painting expertise.

Pedro Vargas, a labor market analyst for the Employment Development Department, was glad to hear about the business expansion and noted that manufacturing was one of the industries on the rise in Merced from July to August, with an increase of 100 jobs.

Other industries that saw gains include government, farm, educational and health services, professional and business services, and trade, transportation and utilities.

While 3,400 jobs were gained from July to August, employment is down 1.6 percentage points from the previous year, Vargas said.

Despite recent improvements, Merced is the third-worst county in California in terms of unemployment. Only Yuba and Imperial counties have higher jobless figures.

In August, unemployment rates were 15.7 percent for the city of Merced, 16.2 percent for Atwater, 16.7 percent for Los Banos and 18.4 percent for Livingston, according to state data.

For the same period, California's jobless rate was 10.4 percent and the national unemployment rate was 8.2 percent.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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