News Column

Sonoma County unemployment drops to six-year low

June 20, 2014

By Paul Payne, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

June 20--Job growth accelerated in Sonoma County for the fourth consecutive month, dropping the county's unemployment rate in May to a six-year low, the state reported Friday.

The county's jobless rate fell to 5.0 percent in May, down from 5.3 percent in April and 6.5 percent a year ago, the state Employment Development Department reported. It has not been this low since May 2008, when it also stood at 5.0 percent.

The local economy created 3,400 jobs between April and May as employers expanded their payrolls for the fourth straight month. Since the beginning of the year, the economy has added 8,300 wage and salary jobs, increasing industry employment to 197,100, the most since September 2008.

"Business owners are now sticking their heads out of their foxholes and expanding," said Sherill Stockton, a senior vice president of small business loans at Exchange Bank in Santa Rosa. "Activity has picked up across the spectrum."

The local economy has nearly regained all the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, which began in late 2007 when the housing bubble burst and financial markets crashed. Nearly one in seven workers in Sonoma County lost their jobs during the downturn, which wiped out 31,400 local jobs in just over two years, a devastating blow that has taken the local economy more than four years to shake off.

Though it started slowly, the economic recovery has now created 26,100 jobs in Sonoma County since employment hit bottom in January 2010, when the jobless rate peaked at 11.2 percent in Sonoma County.

Today, Sonoma County has the sixth-lowest jobless rate in California, behind only Marin, San Mateo, San Francisco, Napa and Orange counties. Five of the six counties are located in the Bay Area, which now has the tightest labor market in the state.

"The broad trend indicates there is significant hiring going on," said Ben Stone, executive director of the county's Economic Development Board.

It's good news for job-seekers. But it could create an imbalance as the number of open positions exceeds the pool of qualified candidates, Stone said.

If that happens, companies seeking to expand may look elsewhere, he said.

"The challenge now is having enough adequately trained workers for what employers need," Stone said.

The government sector had the largest gain over the past year, with 4,500 new jobs. The figure includes 2,000 new workers who work for special districts and local Indian tribes. Most of those new jobs were created by the November opening of the Graton Resort and Casino, which is owned by Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Professional and business services added 1,500 jobs over the past year, while the trade, transportation and utilities sector added 900 jobs. Manufacturing and construction also saw big increases.

Santa Rosa home builder Jim Murphy added to his 49-member staff this year and is looking to hire at least one more project manager. Business has increased to the point where demand for new houses has outstripped the availability of workers, he said.

"Now we have a backlog, which is a word we haven't used in four to five years," Murphy said.

Dane Jasper, CEO and founder of Santa Rosa-based, said his company hired 11 people in May. The Internet service provider is still trying to fill 15 open positions as its network and product line expands.

"Sonic is growing faster than it's ever grown before," Jasper said.

Areas within the county with the lowest unemployment rate were Glen Ellen and Sebastopol, at 3.1 percent. Santa Rosa was slightly below the county average at 4.9 percent while Monte Rio had the highest unemployment with 11 percent.

The state estimated there were 13,100 unemployed job-seekers in Sonoma County in May, down from 16,800 a year ago. More than twice as many people were out of work at the peak of the local recession in early 2010, when there were 28,500 active job-seekers unable to find a job.

The overall drop in unemployment was mirrored across the North Bay.

In Napa County, the jobless rate tumbled to 4.5 percent in May, down from 5.0 percent in April and 5.7 percent a year ago.

In Mendocino County, the jobless rate fell to 5.9 percent in May, down from 6.7 percent in April and 7.1 percent a year ago.

The recovery has been slower to take hold in Lake County, where unemployment slipped to 9.0 percent in May, down from 10.3 percent in April and 11.3 percent a year ago.

Statewide, unemployment dropped to 7.6 percent in May as California gained 18,300 jobs. More than 10,000 of those were in the leisure and hospitality businesses, while the manufacturing sector lost 6,800 positions.

The figures come a month after the state's unemployment rate fell to its lowest point in six years, 7.8 percent. The jobless rate remains above the national average of 6.3 percent.

More than 1.4 million Californians were out of work in May, a drop of a quarter-million people over the last year. Unemployment figures do not include people who stopped looking for work.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)

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