Unemployment Drops to 5.6%


Reflecting a Ventura County economy steadily gaining strength, figures released Friday showed the county’s unemployment rate in March plummeting to 5.6%--the lowest level in seven years.

The regional statistics released by the state’s Employment Development Department paint a portrait of an economy gathering momentum after a flat 1996, said Mark Schniepp, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Economic Forecast Project.

Nonfarm employment, considered by analysts to be a critical measure of economic health, is growing at a buoyant 3.3% clip.


“Last year it averaged 1.1%,” Schniepp said. “So we’re three times as fast at producing jobs this year over last year.”

Ventura County has added 5,100 jobs since March 1996, including 3,700 last month alone. Farm employment jumped 2,100 over February.

The local figures mirror a statewide trend that saw California’s unemployment rate dip to 6.5% in March as employers added more than 41,000 new jobs.

The county’s unemployment rate is the lowest since June 1990, when 5% of the work force was unable to find a job. The unemployment rate stood at 6.3% in March 1996 and 6.2% in February 1997.

Leading the charge in thinning the jobless ranks was the business services sector, which includes software firms and temporary-help agencies. Job growth was a blistering 11.2% over the last year and accounted for 400 of the 600 positions added in the services group overall last month.

“We are pulling our hair out to find people,” said Sue Duffy, manager of Techstaff West in Thousand Oaks, which fills positions ranging from clerical and light industrial to such highly skilled jobs as computer programmers and engineers. “This is the toughest I’ve seen it and I’ve been doing it 20 years. I can’t believe what’s going on.”


Activity at the company has at least doubled in the last year, Duffy said. Occupations in demand include purchasing agents and production planners, a sign that companies are busy manufacturing goods, she said.

Moreover, Duffy said she is having to counsel companies accustomed to the soft labor market of recent years that they must offer more competitive salaries and benefits to workers.

“It’s good for the work force because it’s been such an employers’ market for so long,” she said. “I’ve having to retrain my companies. They can’t be arrogant about this.”

Also posting job gains last month was manufacturing, which added 300 jobs. Local government added 200 jobs, a figure analysts attribute to teacher hiring because of class-size reductions.

The only dark spots were in sectors associated with the defense industry, which is continuing to downsize. High-technology manufacturing, which includes aircraft, guided missiles and electronic components lost 200 jobs in March.

In the 12 months ending in March, 400 Department of Defense jobs were lost. Another 180 workers at the Seabee base in Port Hueneme--about 17% of the work force--are expected to receive pink slips beginning in May.


The unemployment rate in various Ventura County cities, which is calculated using 7-year-old census data, ranged from a high of 8.9% in Santa Paula to 2.9% in Ojai. The unemployment rate in Oxnard, the county’s largest city, was 8%. Ventura and Camarillo posted a rate of 4.4%, Thousand Oaks 4.6% and Simi Valley 4.8%.

“Things are looking generally good,” Schniepp said, adding that he foresees at least another year or two of economic expansion.


Ventura County Jobless Rate

March 1997: 5.6%


Annual Rates

1997: 6.6%

1996: 7.15

1995: 7.55

1994: 7.8%Source: California Employment Development Department