It’s been 10 years since Merced County and much of the nation slipped into the economic shredder now known as the Great Recession. Now, as a slow but steady recovery continues, there are more people than ever with jobs in the county, and the unemployment rate here is lower than it’s been in almost 30 years.
September is the first month since 1990 that Merced County’s unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent, according to estimates released Friday by the state Employment Development Department. Total civilian employment was about 113,100, the largest number of people holding jobs recorded since 1990, when the state began tracking under its current system. That translates to an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent.
“September is sort of a typical low point of the year (for unemployment rates), but regardless of that typicality, this is the lowest September on record,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at Stockton’s University of the Pacific.
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The picture was similar in other counties in the central San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County’s September unemployment rate of 5.9 percent and Kings County’s 6.0 percent, like Merced’s rate, also reflect the best figures reported in those counties since 1990.
Madera County’s rate of 5.4 percent was better than any month since September 2006, at the height of the pre-recession housing boom, and Tulare County’s rate of 7.9, while much higher than its neighbors, was the lowest rate since October 2006.
“August and September are historically the months with the lowest unemployment rates because of the seasonal swings in agriculture and schools,” said Steven Gutierrez, a labor market specialist with the Employment Development Department in Fresno. Still, he added, “the overall trends seem to be going in a positive direction.” Year-over-year figures show stability or gains in numbers of jobs in almost every industry.
Seasonal workers being hired by retail businesses for the holidays won’t yet show up in the employment estimates. “In retail, we’re seeing people have a little more discretionary income in their pocket, and that will probably allow employers to do more seasonal hiring than normal,” Gutierrez said.
Prior to the recession, the lowest unemployment rates seen in Merced County were 6.7 percent, reached in September and October of last year and in September 2000. During the peak of the recession, joblessness reached its highest rate of 20.7 percent in February 2010.
“We’re now at 10 years since the start of the Great Recession, and we’re deep into a long period of sustained growth,” said Michael, the UOP economist. “At the same time, we’ve got slower population growth and much slower labor force growth.” He added that the Valley experienced sizable gains in the number of people in the labor force in the 1990s and 2000s.
Merced County’s total labor force – the sum of people with jobs and people available and looking for work – was estimated at 120,200 in September, better than the previous peak of just over 119,000 in September 2017. The available labor force does not include people who have dropped out of the job market, including those described as “discouraged workers” who have given up their search for work.
Michael discounted a lower rate of labor force participation as a major factor in the lower unemployment rates. “Some people are getting older and retiring, and younger workers are a little slower to join the labor force than in the past, and they’re joining at a lower rate,” he said. “Especially during the recession, people were coming into working age but there weren’t many job opportunities to enter the labor force.”
Michael and Gutierrez both said the employment gains are widespread across many industries. Out of 11 major industry sectors, only one – farm jobs – saw a year-over-year decline in numbers of employees.
For all of the improvement, however, unemployment rates in Merced County and the rest of the central San Joaquin Valley remain higher – as they historically have been – than both the statewide and national rates. California’s unemployment rate in September was 3.9 percent, while the national rate was 3.6 percent.