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Las Vegas Valley, state unemployment rate ratchets downward

Improved consumer spending meant a merrier holiday season in November for thousands of newly employed Nevadans, as state and local unemployment rates edged down toward single-digit percentages and retail hiring returned to prerecession levels.

Friday numbers from the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation showed a seasonally adjusted gain of 9,200 jobs from October to November, the biggest monthly jump since April 2005. The increase also handily beat the typical October-to-November trend, which is a loss of 1,200 jobs. It’s only the 10th time since 1990 that month-to-month job growth hit at least 9,200 positions.

Credit a boost in consumer confidence for the gains, local observers said.

"We’re seeing improvements in the overall job market, with the retail sector in particular doing better," said Brian Gordon, a principal in local research firm Applied Analysis. "That’s sourced primarily to more stable job and housing environments. Neither one is performing particularly well relative to where we were before the recession, but there is increased stability, which is providing consumers with a better comfort level as to where they stand today and where they may be positioned going forward."

And retail isn’t booming just from seasonal growth: The sector added 4,300 jobs year over year in November, which means it contributed the bulk of the 6,300 new jobs created in the period locally, Gordon noted. In comparison, the local leisure and hospitality sector added 800 jobs year over year in November.

Still, economists and observers cautioned against reading too much into the latest jobs numbers. The Las Vegas economy remains uneven enough that unemployment could bounce around a bit in the New Year, without any additional major retreats.

Start with those unemployment rates. Nevada’s jobless rate dropped to 10.8 percent in November, its lowest rate since March 2009 and a big drop from 11.5 percent in October and 13.2 percent in November 2011. In Las Vegas, the rate slipped to 10.4 percent, compared with 11.1 percent in October and 13 percent in November 2011. Reno won the race to single-digit unemployment, with its 9.9 percent rate easily besting its 10.6 percent rate in October and 12.1 percent in November 2011. It was Reno’s first single-digit jobless rate since 2008.

The employment department seasonally adjusts statewide jobless rates, but not local ones, so city rates are subject to larger swings, and can differ significantly from state levels.

Though rates fell, Nevada ranked No. 1 among states for November unemployment, with Rhode Island ranking No. 2 at 10.4 percent. The nationwide average was 7.7 percent. California, an important feeder market for local tourists and new residents, saw its rate dip into the single digits, at 9.8 percent.

Yet, Nevada’s above-average unemployment rate couldn’t obscure the fact that its labor markets did improve broadly, said Bill Anderson, chief economist of the employment department.

Growth was best in retail, which added 3,700 jobs month to month. That hiring pace took the state back to pre-2007 hiring levels, and "we still have December to go," Anderson noted.

Leisure and hospitality also expanded its jobs base, as did education and health services. Even construction brought on about 1,500 new jobs. In fact, private-sector employment in Nevada hit the 1 million mark for the first time since March 2009.

"What we’re seeing over time is job growth that’s spread across a number of different industries," Anderson said.

Additional improvements will also probably spread across a number of months, as experts called November’s figures a one-time result that locals shouldn’t expect to become routine.

"We’re not going to see the jobless rate decline seven-tenths of a point month after month," Anderson said. "We’re cautiously looking forward to modest improvements."

Anderson stuck to a November employment department forecast that doesn’t project annual unemployment averages to fall into single digits in Nevada until late 2013 or early 2014.

Other experts agreed that November’s job gains likely won’t repeat themselves in the first half of 2013.

Gordon said he expects joblessness to hover between 10 percent and 11 percent at least through June.

"There just aren’t any catalysts out there that are going to propel the job market beyond its current trend line," he said.

Plus, there are hints that some businesses expect sluggish labor markets in early 2013.

Steve Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, noted that his bureau’s research found that local small businesses expect strength in every aspect of their business except hiring.

The U.S. economy also faces headwinds, most notably a standoff in negotiations over the fiscal cliff, a combination of federal tax increases and spending cuts set to kick in on Jan. 1. If taxes increase, that would eat into the discretionary dollars consumers spend on travel and tourism, and that would hold back added local job gains, Brown said.

Even if Southern Nevada’s job outlook improves, unemployment could get worse before it gets better. That’s because the region’s work force continues to shrink as discouraged workers quit looking for jobs and are no longer counted in jobless data. As the economy picks up, those workers could return to the labor pool and push up unemployment rates, Brown said.

Those factors are why the center said it expects joblessness to stay above 10 percent until late 2013.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.

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