Ventura County ended the year by creating 2,100 nonfarm jobs in December compared with a year earlier -- an indication that robust job growth may be returning.
Those gains came after several months of job losses last summer, with 1,900 jobs lost in August alone. But the year-end figures suggest local employers are back on track.
Mark Schniepp, director of California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara, said 2002 was a record year for Ventura County employment. Annual average agricultural employment was up 25 jobs to 22,308. Average nonfarm employment was up 700 positions last year to 280,900, also a record.
"We ended with a net job gain of 700 in 2002 compared with 2001," Schniepp said. "That isn't much for a county with 300,000 jobs, but at least we were positive -- and many other places in California can't say that."
For comparison, the county created 6,000 jobs in 2001 and 10,500 in 2000.
In December, Ventura County weathered a month-to-month loss of 400 local jobs to post an unemployment rate of 5.5%.
Seasonal employment by stores and other retail hiring generated 1,000 jobs last month, 200 positions were added in the services sector, and mining, construction and the finance, insurance and real estate sector added 100 jobs each. That was reduced by a loss of 800 government jobs, 200 manufacturing jobs and 100 wholesale trade jobs.
The resulting gain of 400 jobs over the previous month was offset, however, by a loss of 800 farm jobs.
"December was weaker than expected," said Bill Watkins, executive director of the Economic Forecast Project at UC Santa Barbara. "I'm surprised by the decline in the labor force. You usually get a pickup because of retail sales."
The county's jobless rate remained below California's December rate of 6.3% and the national rate of 5.7%. Ventura County ranked 18th among the state's 58 counties in terms of low unemployment, while neighboring Santa Barbara was 10th with 4.8%. Marin County had the lowest unemployment rate of 3.4%
The latest Ventura County figure of 5.5% for December, released Friday by the state's Employment Development Department, was up from 5% in December 2001, but Schniepp said the increase is no cause for concern."This is a very small increment," he said.
Ventura County's annual average unemployment in 2002 was 5.2%, compared with 4.5% in 2001.
This 0.7% increase "is virtually nothing," Schniepp said, especially when considering that the 2001 annual rate was Ventura County's lowest unemployment rate ever.
When interpreting the data, it is best to compare full-year figures and to look only at nonfarm employment, Schniepp maintains, because of the seasonal nature of agricultural hiring, which is affected by the weather and the corresponding timing of harvest seasons.
"The economy slowed in 2002 significantly, but it looks like the momentum is returning," Schniepp said. "We ended the year on an up note. We're at the fastest pace of job growth that we've seen since February."