Despite a sagging economy and the threat of war, Ventura County employers counted nearly as many workers in January as they did in January 2002, keeping the unemployment rate steady at 5.6%.
That compares favorably with California's jobless rate of 7%, and a 6.5% rate for the nation. It also is down from a revised December jobless rate of 5.8%.
"We're holding steady in a time of very high uncertainty -- high uncertainty over Iraq and global politics," said Dan Hamilton, director of economics for the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project. "In a way, it's reassuring that the county as a whole is hanging in there despite the level of uncertainty, which is somewhat higher than it was 12 months ago."
A week before the January figures were released, the project predicted continued growth in the Ventura County economy, forecasting an 8.1% increase this year in the gross regional product -- the value of all goods and services produced locally -- to $44.9 billion, a figure predicted to grow to $61.5 billion in 2007. Those figures presuppose that the U.S. will avoid a protracted war in Iraq.
"If we go to war, it's possible this particular county may not be hurt too badly, but it makes the job of predicting that much more difficult," Hamilton said.
Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast, said the possibility of war keeps many companies from hiring, signing leases or deciding to expand their operations. He said that uncertainty is affecting the nation's overall economy.
"What will war do? It will be a decision which will give people a chance to plunge ahead," he said. "If we don't go to war, fine. We can stop the saber rattling. If we do, we'll probably win within 12 hours like we did last time."
Either way, clear direction regarding the foreign conflict would be helpful, Schniepp said. "I think it will move the economy forward."
The January employment statistics, based on an international jobs classification system being used in the U.S. for the first time, hold few surprises, the economists said. The local unemployment rate remains relatively low and the number of jobs in Ventura County dropped slightly last month, as typically happens in January.
The hiring of 200 farm workers last month helped offset a 400-person decline in nonfarm employment, which makes up about 95% of the total jobs. The net loss of 200 workers compared withJanuary 2002 represents a fraction of the county's 292,500-person work force.
Using a month-to-month comparison, the employment decline was much greater -- 4,100 total jobs disappeared between December and January -- but the number of jobs historically falls in the first month of the year when numerous temporary workers are released after the busy holiday season, and winter rains slow construction.
Schniepp warned that the number of jobs will grow very slowly in 2003, because hiring will be stymied by the housing crisis. A limited number of homes makes them too expensive for many workers, which correspondingly increases traffic as people priced out of the market commute to their jobs.
Hamilton of UCSB said he is curious to see whether the county will see a surge in hiring this spring, as it has the last two years. If the war were ongoing or still looming, business activity would be dampened, he said.
With a jobless rate of 5.6%, Ventura County ranked 13th among the state's 58 counties, while neighboring Santa Barbara County was sixth with 4.9%. San Luis Obispo County had the state's lowest unemployment rate at 3.6%.
The highest and lowest pockets of joblessness were in western Ventura County. El Rio had the most severe January unemployment at 10.9%, followed by Santa Paula at 9%, while the lowest jobless rate was 2.5% in Mira Monte and 2.9% in Ojai.