West lags rest in job recovery

Metropolitan areas in the Intermountain West region show a broad output recovery is under way, though hiring remains elusive in every city except Albuquerque, N.M., and Ogden, Utah, the Brookings Institution reported in its fourth-quarter economic analysis.

Las Vegas and Tucson, Ariz., are continuing to shed jobs at a faster pace than the rest of the West and the nation, according to the report.

"You're still ahead of where it was in 2000," Mark Muro, policy director for Washington, D.C.-based Brookings, said about Las Vegas' job losses. "You haven't erased the whole decade of job growth. A lot of places have slipped all the way back."

The biggest "takeaway" from the report is that for the first time in 30 years, job recovery in the West is coming at a slower pace than the rest of the nation, Muro said.

In short, the slowness of job recovery in the Intermountain West is new for a region that prides itself on growth and has tended to roar -- rather than limp -- back from recession, he said.

"This development is new and unwelcome to a region that has taken fast job snap-backs and plentiful jobs for granted and it raises troubling questions for the whole West," Muro said. "Why are things different this time? And where are the jobs going to come from?"

All 10 of the Mountain region's large metros posted robust output growth for the second quarter in a row, Brookings reported. Ogden and Albuquerque have fully achieved their output peaks from before the recession.

Colorado Springs, Denver and Ogden posted the largest gains in gross metropolitan product with quarterly growth rates of 2 percent or more. Only Las Vegas at 0.5 percent significantly trailed the national average of 1.6 percent GMP growth.

"Las Vegas continues to struggle on virtually all measures and remains among the most troubled in the region," Muro told the Review-Journal. "Output growth is a prerequisite to getting job growth so you have that. The problem is quarterly job growth has not materialized and that remains elusive all over the country."

Ogden and Albuquerque pulled off the rare combination of growth in both output and jobs, he said. Only nine metros did that nationally.

Employment in the Mountain region's largest cities declined another 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter, which tracks with broad national trends. None of the areas has returned to peak prerecession employment levels.

While job losses during the recession knocked job growth back by 4.5 years in the Intermountain West, that blow was less severe than the 5.75-year setback for the nation on average.

Las Vegas -- notwithstanding the devastation of the last two years -- still retained 23.3 percent more jobs at the end of 2009 than it had at the end of 1999. Provo was up 17.7 percent more jobs, while Phoenix and Boise, Idaho, were 11 percent ahead for the decade.

Along with stagnant job growth, another troubling concern for the region is the failure of the housing market recovery to materialize. For nine of the 10 major metros, year-over-year declines in home prices were more severe in the fourth quarter than the third. Prices fell an inflation-adjusted 12.6 percent in the Mountain region from fourth quarter 2008, compared with a 6.5 percent decline nationally.

The number of real estate-owned, or bank-owned, properties remained exceedingly high in some cities, though Las Vegas and Phoenix saw a decline in REOs over the last quarter.

"Las Vegas is in a class with Phoenix and Boise," Muro said. "They're truly the troubled places that were extremely impacted by the collapse of the real estate bubble."

Among smaller metros representing the epicenter of the real estate crash are Lake Havasu, Ariz.; Reno-Sparks; St. George, Utah; and Yuma, Ariz.

The general report shows that better-educated places continue to perform best. Metros with above-average college education rates have seen employment levels fall by 2.5 percentage points less than less-educated counterparts.

More highly educated workers have skills that are more in demand and are less likely to lose their jobs. They have greater flexibility and higher mobility between occupations and regions. They're also more likely to start businesses or spark wider innovation that spills over to the metropolitan economy.

Denver, Provo and Colorado Springs are good examples of this measure of human capital.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

Employment UnemploymentGMP HPI
Metrochangerate changechangechange
Colorado Springs, Colo.-4.7%0.9%-0.9%-5.1%
Albuquerque, N.M.-
Ogden, Utah-
Salt Lake City-4.92.4-1.9-11.2
Provo, Utah-6.32.2-1.5-13.7
Tucson, Ariz.-6.81.9-3.0-13.0
Boise, Idaho-10.72.9-4.1-16.4
Las Vegas-9.84.4-4.4-20.8

Employment and gross metropolitan product (GMP) change from peak; unemployment rate change from December 2008 to December 2009; home price index (HPI) change from fourth quarter 2008 to fourth quarter 2009.