California's jobless rate falls to 7.6% in May, a six-year low

California's jobless rate falls to 7.6% in May, a six-year low
Stella Portillo, left, of Orange County One-Stop Center, talks with job seekers at the Sixth Annual Anaheim/OC Job Fair at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

California's unemployment rate hit a six-year low in May, at 7.6%, as the state's workforce, after years of struggles, approaches a full recovery from the recession.

Nonfarm employers across California added 18,300 jobs in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With 1,800 more workers, the state will reach the employment peak it set in July 2007.


State and local job growth rates have steadily exceeded the national pace for several months. California is responsible for nearly 16% of all jobs added across the country in the last two months, according to Beacon Economics.

Only Texas has created more jobs over the last year.

"California is one of the lead performers, with job growth faster than the U.S., and that continues through May," said Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast who focuses on state trends.

Thirteen California counties had jobless rates above 10% last month, compared with 24 counties in April. Every metropolitan area in the state has recorded job growth since May of last year.

Recruiters and headhunters report huge demand for recent college graduates and experienced workers.

Brandi Britton, manager of the Los Angeles district for staffing firm Robert Half, said she spoke with one woman who found herself hunting for a job after her law firm's partners decided to retire. Within a week, the woman had three job offers.

"It's definitely a job seeker's market," Britton said.

But some economists have cautioned that California's revival is stratified, with employers disproportionately adding low-wage or high-paying jobs and neglecting the middle tier.

For example, the state recorded high employment growth in the professional and business services and healthcare sectors, but also in the typically lower-paying leisure and hospitality sector.

"That mixture tells us that we continue to add jobs both at the entry level and at higher, more skilled levels," said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "The middle-wage industries, including manufacturing, are under pressure."

Though the state is on the cusp of recovering all the jobs lost during the recession, the size of the labor force has also increased.

Last month, more than 18.6 million people were working or looking for employment, up 4,600 from April and 44,200 from a year earlier.

Even if California returns to the pre-recession employment numbers of 2007, economists note that more improvement is needed.

"We can look at that peak as a benchmark, but it doesn't mean that everything will be fine again," said William Yu, a UCLA economist who studies local trends in Los Angeles. "There has been a labor force increase and population growth over that period. It's not enough."


Job growth has been uneven across the state.

Over the last two years, the Bay Area economies of San Francisco and San Jose, which includes Silicon Valley, have recorded much faster job gains than the Los Angeles economy.

Employment in the San Jose region has grown 3.6% since last May, compared with 2.6% in Los Angeles.

California, which has gained 1,327,000 jobs since the recovery began in February 2010, still has the fifth-highest jobless rate nationwide. Rhode Island tops the list with an 8.2% rate, while North Dakota's 2.6% rate is the lowest.

Across the country, 6.3% of workers are unemployed. But both California and Los Angeles are growing jobs at a faster clip than the national average.

The state Employment Development Department said 435,763 Californians received unemployment benefits last month, down 45,255 recipients from April. The number of new claims also dropped last month to 53,388 from 62,715 in April.

Imperial County's 21.1% unemployment rate, which is not seasonally adjusted, is still the highest out of California's 58 counties, but it's an improvement on April's 21.6% rate.

The lowest unemployment level in the state belongs to Marin County, with a 3.8% rate.

In Los Angeles County, the unemployment rate rose to a seasonally unadjusted 8% from 7.6% in April. Both the labor force and the number of job seekers increased in the county, which is still 94,000 jobs short of its pre-recession peak in December 2007.

In Southern California, both San Bernardino and Riverside counties had an 8% jobless rate in May.

Ventura County reported that 5.9% of its labor force was out of work; for Orange County, it was 4.9%.

Even as the state's economy slowly improves, many people still struggle to find satisfying jobs. Robin John, 46, goes to a local career center nearly every day. Out of a batch of 30 resumes, she usually hears back from just two or three companies.

Out of steady work for nearly five years, John relies on part-time and on-call work, baby-sitting, tutoring and cooking at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Her unemployment benefits have reset several times, so between those funds, meals from food banks and "a lot of hustling," she's able to pay the $800-a-month rent on her single apartment in Koreatown and the monthly $50 bill for her phone.

John said she'd love a teaching job — or any full-time position.

"That would be key," she said. "But they're not giving many of those out."