Unemployment drops again

Yavapai 1 of 2 counties with lowest jobless rates; retail remains weak, battles online competition

PHOENIX — The state’s jobless rate ticked down two tenths of a point last month as companies continued to add workers at a slow but steady rate.

New figures put Arizona’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for October at 4.5 percent. That compares to 4.1 percent nationally.

Year-over-year employment is up by 32,000, a rate of 1.2 percent. That is far below projections made by the state Office of Economic Opportunity a year ago that figured Arizona would add jobs between now and 2024 at a rate of 1.9 percent annually.

It also is less than the 2.3 percent growth that the state was recording at the time since the Great Recession ended.

Doug Walls, the agency’s research administrator, minimized that 1.2 percent figure, saying it still represents positive year-over-year growth, the seventh year that has occurred. But he was unwilling to say whether this lower growth rate over the past 12 months is representative of what Arizona can expect than last year’s prediction.

“That’s not something that we know now,” Walls said. “We’re going to have to wait and see what the numbers continue to show there.”

Gov. Doug Ducey, to whom Walls’ agency reports, wasted no time in putting out a statement touting the new numbers, pointing out the jobless rate is the lowest in nearly a decade.

“This is good news for hardworking Arizonans and good news for our economy,” the governor said.

But that good news is not statewide, with most of that growth in the Phoenix area.

And the economy in Pima County continues to lag: Even with 600 new jobs last month, companies report they have 1,000 fewer employees now than a year ago.

That’s only part of the picture.

A separate survey of Pima County residents not only finds total employment down in the past year but that the labor force has shrunk by 3,400. Those are people who either have stopped looking for work or have left the area entirely.

Ducey, at groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for a new firm that will bring 500 jobs to Tempe, suggested any concern about Pima County’s future economic development is misplaced.

“Tucson is a growing metro area,” the governor said.

“It’s a place that I’ve found, in discussions when I’m talking to CEOs and business leaders, that they find attractive,” he continued, “and it’s always part of the mix and the discussion.”

Still, Ducey said it might be appropriate to take a closer look at how to reverse the area’s economic trend.

“There are some other things, in terms of what’s happening in Southern Arizona and Pima County, that we need to look at in terms of proper investment and how some things are handled,” he said, but provided no specifics.

“But it’s an attractive place to be and we’ve had some big wins there,” he said, including Caterpillar Inc. agreeing to bring a regional headquarters to Tucson along with 600 jobs and Comcast adding more than 1,100 call center jobs.

Statewide, Arizona added 17,300 private sector jobs in the past year. That compares with the post-recessionary average of 22,800.

The strongest sector of the economy remains leisure and hospitality, with a 2.8 percent year-over-year growth. That is fueled largely by bars and restaurants boosting employment in the past year by 5,000.

Manufacturing is showing some signs of life, adding 700 jobs last month and bringing the number of workers in that field up by 3.2 percent.

Retail employment, by contrast, remains weak.

There were the expected seasonal gains at stores ramp up for holiday shopping. But there are 800 fewer people working in that sector now than a year earlier.

“We have seen slowing growth into declines as the retail industry tries to find its equilibrium dealing with online competitors,” Walls said.

The situation was even worse in Pima County where retailers shed 500 jobs between September and October, leaving employment in that sector 3,100 below a year earlier.