Big gains in farm employment were augmented by increases in the number of nonfarm jobs to drop the unemployment rate in Fresno County in May to under 15% -- the first time in nearly three years.
Figures released Friday by the state Employment Development Department showed the jobless rate at 14.9% last month. That's down from 15.8% in April, and below the 16% rate that was reported in May 2011.
Farm jobs in Fresno County rose by 7,300 between April and May as spring agriculture activity increased, including harvests of crops such as oranges, blueberries and strawberries.
Away from the farms and fields, manufacturing businesses reported gains of 1,300 jobs from April, with food manufacturing and processing responsible for most of those positions.
Improving weather contributed to 800 more construction jobs, the state reported. Also adding significant numbers of positions were retailers, at 600 jobs.
The combined gains were enough to drive the county's unemployment rate to under 15% for the first time since September 2009, said Steven Gutierrez, a labor market analyst with the EDD.
"This is normally the drop that we're going to see this time of year in the unemployment rate," Gutierrez said. "The surge of activity in food processing and packing, farming and related sectors will probably continue to add jobs through the summer."
May also marked the fifth straight month in which retail jobs have grown in Fresno County, and the industry is up 2,600 jobs from where it was a year ago, Gutierrez said.
"The retail trade continues to rebound," he said. "It's definitely been growing more each month."
The job figures are based on monthly surveys of employers across California and in each county. But Gutierrez said the surveys don't reveal whether the new jobs are full- or part-time.
Unemployment rates also fell in neighboring central San Joaquin Valley counties between April and May, ranging from 14.3% in Madera County to 17.3% in Merced County.
Across Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties, a combined 136,500 people who want jobs were unemployed in May. That's down 7,000 from April, and a decline of 22,200 from March. At the same time, the number of people in the Valley's labor force has grown by about 15,200 from April.
Statewide, the unemployment rate fell to 10.8% in May, down from 10.9% in April and a full percentage point lower than the 11.9% reported at the same time a year ago.
The EDD figures show that California employers added more than 33,900 nonfarm payroll jobs in May, the largest month-over-month increase in the nation. Since the recovery began in September 2009, officials say 425,000 jobs have been created in the state.
The drop in California's unemployment rate contrasts with the national trend. The U.S. jobless rate rose to 8.2% last month from 8.1% in April, its first rise in nearly a year. Yet California's unemployment rate is the nation's third-highest, behind Nevada, with, 11.6%, and Rhode Island, with 11%.
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