The Stanislaus County unemployment rate more than doubled in the past decade, rising to heights not seen since the mid-1990s, after the housing bubble burst.
The county's jobless figures remained steady last month, equaling the year's high from March and a revised rate for November of 17.5 percent, according to data released Friday by the state Employment Development Department. The November rate initially was pegged at 17.2 percent.
The county's rate is its highest since January 1994, when it hit 18.5 percent.
The numbers stands in stark contrast to the start of the decade when the average annual jobless rate was 7.8 percent and unemployment hit a modern low of 5.9 percent in September 2000.
"That is the highest for the decade, which is not the news we'd like to see," said EDD labor market analyst Liz Baker, "but the whole nation is in a state of economic crisis still."
The unemployment rate rose or stayed steady in the surrounding San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, with only Calaveras easing off by less than half a percentage point.
Merced continued to have the area's highest jobless rate at 19.8 percent while the state unemployment rate remained at 12.4 percent for December.
"It's the same story everywhere in California for December," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "Just a really lousy holiday season for retail and for some associated things like restaurants and temp hiring."
The holiday hiring bump was lower than in years past, further depressing the area's employment picture, which also is in its seasonal decline because of the area's agriculture and manufacturing cycles.
Michael said the numbers are likely to get worse before they get better.
Historically, there is a rise in unemployment statistics through March, and then a fall-off once farming picks up again in the spring.
"When we get to this March, that will probably be the ultimate low for this entire cycle," Michael said. "Let's hope (we) stay below 20 (percent). I think we will, but the margin may be uncomfortably small."
He said projected job losses in government and schools, coupled with the upcoming April closure of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, could mean more hits for the area through this year.
The center is not forecasting a return to single-digit unemployment rates until at least the end of 2014.
Despite a decade that ended on a grim note for unemployment, Bill Bassitt of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance said it is a small encouragement that the jobless rate is steady.
"I guess that's all we can hope for, maybe we've reached the peak of this unemployment and we can start moving the other direction," he said. "While others may predict that we'll be higher than we are now, I think that there is some reasonable expectation that we can see some moderation. We're hopeful that this is as bad as it gets."
Whether or not the area has hit bottom on its unemployment rate, many agree that the recovery will be different and possibly longer than the previous recession of the early 1990s.
That was then, this is now
That recovery was bolstered by a boom in housing and construction, which grew through the 2000s until the housing market collapse in late 2005, triggered by a flood of subprime loans and inflated prices. As home prices went into a tailspin, owners found themselves owing more than their houses were worth and unable to refinance to get out from under rising mortgage payments.
As foreclosures mounted and the recession took hold, businesses began cutting back and trimming jobs to stay afloat. But business closures and job losses spread from construction companies and other real-estate related firms to restaurants, auto dealerships and retailers of all sizes.
"In the second half of the '90s, this was very much a housing-fueled recovery," Michael said. "I expect this time the path back will be flatter and slower. The construction will get better, but you won't see a roaring back of that industry. People are tapped out and rebuilding their savings and wealth."
Michael said manufacturing and transportation are two industries to look to for growth and new jobs.
Bassitt said for the area to have a sustained and healthy recovery it will need to diversify the local economy. While the Central Valley likely always will be agriculture-driven, he said other industries need to grow to create the jobs needed for a turn-around.
He said fields such as renewable energy and technology show potential in the area. But it could be the individual entrepreneurs who lead the way in job creation.
"In times like this, there are an awful lot of people who can't find work who do turn to developing their own companies, consultancies, inventions. The entrepreneurial spirit in this kind of economy does thrive," Bassitt said.
"We've got a tough time ahead of us," he said. "But as we begin to come out of it, I think it will be a much wiser population."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.