Nevada unemployment ticks up slightly; Las Vegas rate unchanged

It’s a speed bump on the road to recovery.

Sure, the latest state and local jobs numbers skidded sideways in March, but economists said Friday that those numbers don’t necessarily mean labor markets are veering back into a ditch. In fact, observers predict relatively steady job growth for the next two years, though they also said we should expect a few ups and downs along the way.

Start with March’s down. Unemployment increased statewide to 9.7 percent, up from
9.6 percent in February, stopping a 20-month streak of jobless declines or steady rates. Local unemployment held steady at 9.8 percent, the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation reported.

Blame the setback on stalled job growth, said Bill Anderson, chief economist of the employment department. The state’s employers added 4,400 jobs from February to March, nearly 3,000 fewer jobs than the typical 7,300 new positions in the period. The likeliest culprit behind sluggish jobs gains was uncertainty, both about national economic strength and federal fiscal policies, Anderson said.

Brian Gordon, a principal in local research firm Applied Analysis, said January’s 2 percent increase in the payroll tax that funds Social Security could be causing “slightly softer performances in some areas.”

But uncertainty didn’t keep jobless data from improving markedly in the past year. Unemployment was 11.6 percent statewide and 11.7 percent locally in March 2012, which means Nevada’s unemployment rate has come down more than in any other state. It was also significantly higher than any other state’s rate in 2011 and 2012.

Nevada added 25,500 jobs year over year in the first quarter, including 16,000 positions in the Las Vegas Valley, for annual job growth of more than 2 percent.

“That’s why we’ve been characterizing this recovery as modest in nature. It’s definitely an improvement over where we were, but we still have a long way to go,” Anderson said.

Nine of Nevada’s 10 major employment sectors posted growth year to year in the first quarter. Leisure and hospitality grew the most, adding about 9,000 jobs. Trade transportation and utilities, which includes retail, gained 6,000 jobs.

Rising local home prices and record visitor volumes have buoyed hospitality and retail employment, Gordon said.

“There seems to be a sense of some renewed optimism among consumers,” he said.

What’s more, some pockets of the state’s economy grew faster than national averages. Thanks mostly to a still-strong gold sector up north, mining employment grew 8.9 percent in the first quarter, compared with 2.5 percent nationwide. As housing permits jumped and building activity picked up on the Strip, construction jobs jumped 6.8 percent, against 2.7 percent national growth. And surging real estate sales and leasing activity helped the financial sector add 4.7 percent to its jobs base, well ahead of a 1.3 percent increase nationally.

The only key jobs category that lost ground was professional and business services, which retreated by nearly 3,000 jobs, including losses in scientific services and administration and support.

It’s difficult to draw long-term conclusions from a single monthly report, but Anderson said he expects the jobless rate to tick down in the next few months, with some months turning in better numbers than others. The employment department is forecasting annual job growth of 2 percent or more through 2015.

If that happens in Las Vegas, that would mean about 35,000 more local jobs. Gordon noted that would put the city close to its 2007 peak for core employment, a number that excludes hard-hit construction and government sectors. So it will have taken eight years to claw back to those pre-recession jobs numbers.

State unemployment remained well above the national average, which was 7.6 percent in March. Nevada’s jobless number was the highest in the nation, with Illinois (9.5 percent) and California (9.4 percent) rounding out the top three. With the exception of January, Nevada has led the nation in joblessness in every month since May 2010.

The employment department gets its labor market numbers from surveys of households and businesses. Include underemployed part-timers and discouraged workers who have quit the labor force, and Nevada’s jobless rate was
20.3 percent in the first quarter.

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

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