California's improving job market stalled out last month, with the state losing more workers than it gained amid a slowdown in construction and foreign trade.
The state lost a net 11,600 jobs in March after adding a record 84,600 in February, and the unemployment rate fell to 12% from 12.1%.
"It's not always a smooth path," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. "It's just the type of economic recovery that we're in."
Economists said some of the job losses were probably tied to rising gas prices, making employers reluctant to hire, and the tsunami and quake in Japan, which slowed traffic at the ports. Gas hit $4 a gallon for the first time since 2008. Home sales also decelerated in March by 5.2%.
The state lost jobs in seven sectors, including leisure and hospitality, manufacturing and financial activities. The biggest losses were in construction (down 4,300) and trade, transportation and utilities (down 4,400).
Still, California has added 90,600 jobs this year, and its unemployment rate has fallen to 12% from 12.5% in December. That's reason enough to be optimistic, said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
"We're outpacing the nation [in job growth] with some very California-specific head winds," he said, citing housing and construction as culprits. "We're going in the right direction."
SolarCity, based in San Mateo, has hired more than 100 people in California this year as consumers begin to buy solar panels for their homes. And EMS Payroll in Encino has brought on new employees as customers in the film and TV business ramp up production.
"In general, do I think the economy is getting better? Yes I do," said Mark Olson, vice president of marketing and operations at EMS Payroll. "People that we're interviewing are weighing the option of two or three jobs, and we've managed to lose a few people because they're getting better offers."
Nonetheless, 2.2 million people are out of work in the state, and about half of them have been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
Linda Keala, vice president of human resources at SolarCity, said the company usually receives about 50 applications for every open position.
"We get some strong resumes, given that the construction industry has been slow," she said.
Northern California companies have helped boost job growth, with the professional and business services category, which includes high tech, posting 26,600 new jobs in February. That sector continued its growth in March, adding 1,200 jobs.
But companies such as Google Inc. have been punished for adding so many jobs. Wall Street analysts sent Google stock to a six-month low Thursday after the company missed analysts' earnings estimates, in part because of hiring expenses. On Friday, Google shares plunged $47.81, or 8.3%, to $530.70. The stock is down 10.7% this year.
Stockton resident Theresa Price, 41, says she hasn't seen the economy improving at all. She's been looking for an administrative job for nine months to augment her mechanic husband's income.
"It still seems pretty bad to me," she said.
San Joaquin County, of which Stockton is the county seat, is one of 25 counties in the state that have seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates topping 15%.
In Los Angeles County, the unemployment rate fell to 12.3% from a revised 12.6% in February, and the county shed 400 jobs. The professional and business services sector lost the most jobs in the month, followed by information and trade, transportation and utilities.
Orange County's unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 9.1%, from 8.9% the month before, though employers added 2,100 jobs. The unemployment rate can rise when a region adds jobs if more people are looking for work.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties added 6,000 jobs, leaving the region's unemployment rate unchanged at 13.9%. The hard-hit construction sector gained 2,900 jobs in the inland area.
San Diego County added 10,300 jobs, although its unemployment rate rose slightly to 10.2% from 10.1% the month before. Ventura County added 100 jobs, pushing its unemployment rate down slightly to 10.4% from 10.5%. Kern County added 1,000 jobs, although its unemployment rate jumped to 17.5%, from 17% the month before.
The erratic growth is frustrating to small-business owners such as Renee Paul, of Proto-Tech Machine Engineering in El Segundo. She's hiring for one position — because one of her workers decided to leave the state. Her business hasn't seen much improvement at all, she said.
"This is the probably the worst economy we've ever been through," she said, "and I don't see it picking up."