California's labor market continued to gain strength in February as employers in the state added 29,400 workers.
The unemployment rate slipped to 6.7% — its lowest level in nearly seven years — down from 8% in February of last year, according to the state Employment Development Department.
The national rate in February was 5.5%.
“It's really an outstanding set of job gains,” said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “These are very good numbers — a continuation of a strong growth trend.”
Nonfarm payrolls in California increased by 476,400 jobs from a year earlier, a 3.1% increase that outpaced the nation's 2.4% growth rate.
In January, the state also had added nearly half a million jobs year over year.
Other measures echo the trend toward prosperity.
The number of long-term unemployed, discouraged and unwillingly part-time workers declined in the last quarter of 2014, signaling that the state's labor market is tightening, according to a report from City National Bank and Beacon Economics this week.
Wage growth also improved last year, with the average weekly wage swelling 1.6% from 2013, compared with 1.2% growth during the previous year-over-year period, according to the report.
In February, professional and business services employers in California added 114,300 jobs in the largest year-over-year jump of any industry.
Construction employment grew 6.5%, or 43,400 jobs, in the most substantial gain on a percentage basis. The sector has benefited from low mortgage rates and loosening credit restrictions on the housing industry, according to Lynn Reaser, chief economist for Point Loma Nazarene University.
Only the mining and logging category reported declines compared with February 2014, losing 500 jobs in a 1.6% decrease. The shrinkage was largely caused by the lowest oil prices in years, brought on by a domestic glut of petroleum.
Leisure and hospitality employers in California reported the largest employment boost from January to February, adding 12,600 jobs. Lower gasoline prices seem to have spurred spending at restaurants and on recreation, while intense winter weather in the Northeast probably drove tourists to warmer climes in California, Reaser said.
Last month, dockworkers and shippers resolved a months-long labor dispute that had slowed activity at ports along the West Coast. Trade congestion may have caused the loss of 1,500 related jobs in transportation support services — a nearly 7% dive — from January to February, Reaser said.
Overall, however, Southern California has surpassed its pre-recession employment peak, according to an analysis this week by the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.
The metro areas of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura had 84,200 more jobs in January than in July 2007, according to Stephen Levy, the center's director.
The region is benefiting from record demand from tourists, expanding foreign trade, a growing tech sector and a return to construction activity, according to Levy.
“The Southern California economy is now fully participating in the California comeback,” he said.
The biggest counties in the region all fared well.
In Los Angeles County, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 7.8%, compared with 8.7% a year earlier.
On an unadjusted basis, L.A. County employers added 101,100 nonfarm jobs year over year. That's a 2.4% rate of growth, slower than the 3.5% pace in Orange County and the 4.5% rate in the Inland Empire.
But Los Angeles is a much larger market and single-handedly added nearly as many jobs as the other two areas combined.
“Other parts of the state have jobs that are more concentrated in one or a few industries,” said David M. Smith, associate professor of economics at Pepperdine University. “Los Angeles has a large, diverse economy with varied industries, so recovery won't appear as dramatic as it might in areas with more homogenous sectors.”
Local officials and business leaders said they are pushing hard to boost employment in the region. On Friday, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. hosted more than 200 investors from Asia and Mexico at a downtown meeting at the J.W. Marriott hotel.
Stephen Cheung, director of international trade for the Port of Los Angeles, moderated a panel discussion about local manufacturing.
Panelist Lynne Koplin, president of local company J Brand Jeans, said the region's pleasant weather and laid-back lifestyle have helped her recruit new employees recently.
“I have never in the last five years had an easier time importing talent into this city,” she said to a room full of businesspeople from China, Taiwan, Japan and other countries. “It's the first day of spring today, and it's snowing in New York and Philadelphia.”