Jobless rate in L.A. County slips to 4.2%

Times Staff Writer

Thanks to hiring at shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and schools, Los Angeles County's unemployment rate fell again to another all-time low in November, the state reported Friday.

The county's unemployment rate slipped to 4.2%, down a tenth of a percentage point from the previous record low in October, the state's Employment Development Department said.

Statewide, the unemployment rate edged up to 4.6% from a historic low of 4.5% in October. Still, California added a net 15,900 jobs in November, up from a revised 10,600 for the month earlier, as most industry sectors posted employment gains.

Los Angeles County's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which was at 5.3% a year earlier, has been trickling down for several months, hitting 4.5% in July and then dropping to 4.3% in October. The county now has one of the state's lowest jobless rates.

Unlike during the Cold War, when the defense and aerospace industries revved the region's job engine, the jobs gains these days are in selling merchandise, catering to tourists in hotels and restaurants, caring for the aging in hospitals and nursing homes, and teaching.

"We're seeing an incredible positive trend," said Brad Kemp, a research analyst for the Employment Development Department. "It's exciting news for L.A."

However, much of the employment growth in Los Angeles County is coming in low-paying jobs amid a hollowing-out of the middle class, some analysts say.

Statewide, payrolls were up by a net 156,600 jobs, or 1.1%, in November over the year-earlier level.

Most sectors added jobs in November, including the construction industry, which had shed more than 10,000 jobs over the previous 12 months because of the slump in the housing market. A strong commercial construction market appeared to offset weakness on the residential side in November, experts said.

At DPR Construction Inc., for instance, orders from customers in the biotech, healthcare and other advanced technology industries have grown over the last year. To meet that demand, the Redwood City, Calif.-based commercial contractor has increased its salaried staff of engineers and managers by 10% and expanded its construction and technical crews by 40%.

"We're not unusual in the increases that have occurred in the commercial industry in the last year," DPR Executive Vice President Eric Lamb said. "There is a concern in the industry that not many young people are going into the trades, and, in the future, this will be an increasingly difficult issue."

It looks much the same from Richard Slawson's perspective in Southern California.

"Commercial and retail and industrial and public works have been booming for about six or seven years now, and we do not see an expectation for any decline," said Slawson, executive secretary of the Building and Trades Council for Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Still, the biggest job gains in the state for the last year through November were in professional and business services, which added 46,400 jobs, a 2.1% increase.

Los Angeles County was up 34,600 jobs, or 0.8%, for the 12 months ended in November.

In November, the county added 7,000 jobs for a total of 4.6 million. With that growth, the labor force expanded by 3,000 people and the unemployment rolls shrank by 4,000.

Contributing to the employment growth are efforts to retain and attract businesses by overcoming some of the area's downsides, such as high housing prices. Burbank, for instance, offers a free in-town bus service to people who commute into the city on Metrolink trains from as far away as Palmdale and Oceanside, where homes are more affordable.

"Its ridership continues to grow by double digits," said Scott McGookin, Burbank's redevelopment project manager. "That tells us people are commuting into town to come to work or to shop and play."

Larry Kosmont, chief executive of Kosmont Cos., an economic development consulting firm, said the county was mostly adding low-paying, low-skill jobs and some high-paying, high-skill jobs, such as financial advisors. But, he said, there was not enough in the middle.

"The growth now is in jobs that aren't paying as well as they should be for Los Angeles," Kosmont said. "Our middle class just appears to be evaporating, and that is the issue."

Los Angeles has a seasonally unadjusted jobless rate of only 4%, bettered only by eight other counties, including Orange County at 3.4%.

Los Angeles County is the only county big enough for the state to calculate both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted rates; all other county rates are unadjusted.

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