Jobless rate falls to 13.7% in county

500 more jobs reflect seasonal factors, not uptick in job growth, expert says

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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Clark County added 500 jobs in April, reducing the county’s jobless rate to a 13.7 percent from a revised 14.6 percent in March.

However, experts cautioned against cheering those numbers: The 500 jobs added by Clark County reflect seasonal factors such as increased construction activity in spring rather than a fundamental uptick in job growth, Scott Bailey, Southwest Washington regional economist, said Tuesday. Although April’s jobless rate marked an improvement over March, Bailey said, it was actually up from April 2009 when the rate was 13 percent. April’s job gains, while not a fundamental sign of job growth, ended a nine-month drought: The last time Clark County added jobs was in July 2009, when it posted a gain of about 500 jobs, according to Bailey.

“We’re at that point where we’re going to bounce up and down in either low or no job growth for the rest of the year,” Bailey said.

Washington state overall fared better than Clark County: Supported by an increase of 5,800 jobs, the state’s unemployment rate fell in April for the first time in more than three years, according to a report released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

The state’s jobless rate went from a seasonally adjusted 9.5 percent in March to 9.2 percent in April. The last time the unemployment rate declined was March 2007, when the rate moved from 4.5 percent to 4.4 percent, a record low in Washington. Since then, the rate has stayed the same or increased for 36 straight months.

It’s too early to say that Washington is on track toward a sustainable economic recovery, said David Wallace, the state’s acting chief economist, but the latest numbers are encouraging. With the April job gains, Washington has added jobs in three of the first four months of 2010, for a net gain of 14,800 jobs so far this year, according to Wallace.

Industries that added jobs in April were leisure and hospitality, up 1,800; government, up 1,600 (mostly temporary Census jobs); construction, up 1,400; retail trade, up 1,300; manufacturing, up 1,200; information, up 500; education and health services, up 300; and wholesale trade, up 100.

Wallace said it’s possible federal efforts to stimulate the economy are helping give Washington state’s construction industry, which added 1,400 jobs in April, a boost, although “it’s pretty hard for us to tease out the impact of the stimulus money.”

However, Wallace said, the fact that Washington’s leisure and hospitality industry added 1,800 jobs in April indicates “real growth” in that segment of the private sector. “That’s basically consumers coming back on line,” Wallace said. “That is certainly not directly related to the stimulus.”

In Clark County, Bailey said, the soft numbers speak, in part, to the county’s sluggish construction industry which cut 100 positions in April, falling to 8,800 jobs.

“Construction is going to be sluggish for quite awhile,” Bailey said. While the housing market received a temporary boost from federal housing tax credits, he added, “I think we’ll see a correction from that in the coming months.”

There were bright spots for Clark County in April. The electronics manufacturing industry, for example, added 100 jobs for the second month in a row, Bailey said, and wood products generated 100 jobs.

Another positive sign was the number of jobless claims filed by Clark County residents in April: County residents filed 2,423 initial unemployment claims that month, down 32 percent from 3,552 in the year-ago period. However, April’s 2,423 claims were well above the 2005-2008 average of 1,860.

Although Washington state overall showed signs of improvement, the state also posted job losses in several sectors in April. Jobs were lost in financial activities, down 1,400; transportation, warehousing and utilities, down 500; and professional and business services, down 200.