Unemployment in Ventura County edged up slightly in February to 5.2% compared with the same month a year ago, as the number of nonfarm jobs dropped by 3,800 during the 12-month period.
A single month of statistics is too little to establish a trend, but local economists differ about the significance of the job loss.
"We're seeing the ebb and flow of the labor market; there's not too much to be excited about. We still have very low unemployment and it's not up that much from a year ago," said Mark Schniepp, director of California Economic Forecast, referring to the February 2002 jobless rate of 5%.
But Dan Hamilton, director of economics for the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, suggests that such losses could hint that a recovery from the recession could take longer than expected.
"What will be interesting is seeing how deep into the springtime and summer this will carry," Hamilton said. "In a few months, we should know whether we should be nervous about 2003, because spring is a time of typical strength when the economy is doing well."
Still, Ventura County's estimated unemployment rate in February continued to compare favorably with those of the state and the nation -- at 6.9% and 6.4%, respectively.
The February employment statistics, released last week by the state Employment Development Department, are based on an international jobs classification system being used in the United States for only the second month.
Analysts point out that while the county suffered job losses in such categories as construction, manufacturing and government, they were partly offset by hiring gains in areas such as education, health services and financial services.
And when the addition of 300 new farm jobs is considered, the total annual job loss was 3,500. This brought the overall number of jobs in the county down about 1.2%, to 294,700 in February.
"This is a jobless recovery. We're not hiring anyone new, but there's not real misery ... the unemployment rate is not really rising in any significant way," Schniepp said.
Although some companies have closed their doors or laid off workers, Schniepp believes more cuts have come through attrition as workers who retire or quit are not immediately replaced.
To explain why displaced people are not forming long lines at the unemployment office, the economist suggests they are either quickly finding jobs outside Ventura County or are immediately leaving the area in search of work.
And having slightly more people out of work apparently has not hurt the overall economy, Schniepp maintains.
"You certainly don't see much hunkering down by consumers -- home sales are off the chart. Retail is hiring, restaurants are making lots of money," he said.
"The places where you would expect softness -- in manufacturing, technology and education, because of the state budget crisis -- those are the areas that are bloodletting.
"Construction is the only other major sector hit and we know why that's down: There's nothing to build. It's very predictable, so it shouldn't raise concerns."
But because many more high-paying jobs are being lost than are being created in growing sectors such as finance and insurance, Hamilton said this could eventually cause problems for the overall economy.
"We may see another month or two of job losses; I think there's a little more to come," he said.
With a jobless rate of 5.2%, Ventura County for the second consecutive month ranked 13th among the state's 58 counties, while neighboring Santa Barbara County again was sixth with 4.7% and Los Angeles County came in at 21st with 6.5%.