State trails nation's recovering market for jobs

SACRAMENTO — For America's job seekers, March was the most fruitful month in three years, the strongest evidence yet that the nation's labor market is starting to climb out of the recession.

But as residents of a state still mired in a horrific slump, Californians might have to wait a while for that kind of hiring spree.

Nationally, employers added 162,000 jobs in March, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday. While temporary U.S. Census workers accounted for more than a quarter of the hiring, it was still the brightest employment report since May 2007.

The downside is that private forecasters were expecting job gains to reach 190,000. And the surge in hiring wasn't enough to budge the national unemployment rate from 9.7 percent, where it's been stuck for three months.

Still, the numbers were strong enough for President Barack Obama to tell an audience in Charlotte, N.C.: "We are beginning to turn the corner. This month, more Americans woke up, got dressed and headed to work at an office or factory or storefront."

For the first quarter of the year, the nation averaged 54,000 new jobs a month. In the first quarter of last year, the nation was losing 753,000 jobs a month, said the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

"The labor market has hit the bottom," said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University's Channel Islands campus in Camarillo. "We are scraping the bottom and are poised to revive."

A sharp bounce-back isn't likely, though.

"It'll be a while before we see a healthy, meaningful economic recovery with job growth," Sohn said.

The picture in California might be even less pretty. Although the state and local jobs numbers for March won't be released for another two weeks, it's clear that California is suffering more than most states and is recovering more slowly, too.

The state's unemployment rate in February was 12.5 percent, and while job losses have tapered off, California has yet to get on a roll. In Stanislaus County, the jobless rate was 19.1 percent.

"Any good news in the U.S. economy is also good news for us. It doesn't mean that we're about to launch into sustained job creation," said Jeff Michael of the University of the Pa- cific's Business Forecasting Center.

Michael said he's particularly concerned about two industries that performed well on the national level last month — construction and manufacturing — but are still in deep trouble in California.

"I don't think our construction sector is quite ready to turn around," Michael said.

On the manufacturing front, the state and the nation couldn't be further apart. Factories added 17,000 jobs across the country in March for the third straight monthly increase, the Labor Department said. Earlier this week, the Institute for Supply Management said the nation's factories increased output for the eighth straight month.

Fremont factory just the start

Meanwhile, California is just starting to absorb the recession's single biggest layoff: Toyota Motor Corp.'s closure of its NUMMI factory in Fremont. Including the parts manufacturers that are being forced to shut down, the total job loss could reach 20,000, according to Michael. Many of the layoffs are occurring in the Modesto and Stockton areas.

Sohn said interior California, including the Central Valley and Inland Empire, are doing substantially worse than the Bay Area and Southern California.

"The coastal regions are actually doing pretty well," he said. "The problems are inland."

He said several factors will hinder the strength of the recovery, including global competition. And consumers, who account for about two-thirds of all economic activity, are too heavily in debt to lift the economy by themselves.

"They're in no shape to go on a spending spree," Sohn said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.