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Jobless rate tracks record

Nevada’s unemployment rate continues its march toward a new record, surging to 10.1 percent in February, new numbers from the state showed Friday morning.

Surpassing 10 percent unemployment represents an important water mark: By the reckoning of local economist Keith Schwer, who directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reaching 10 percent officially tips the state’s recession from the mild category into the bad realm. The next stop would be a depression, which would feature joblessness of 15 percent or more, though it’s important to note no state or local economists forecast any numbers approaching that level.

Nevada’s unemployment nearly doubled in the last 12 months, rising from 5.5 percent a year ago and 9.4 percent in January. At its current pace, statewide joblessness will likely breach 11 percent and peak in the next few months, said Bill Anderson, chief economist for the state’s Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation. That would beat the record of 10.7 percent, set in December 1982.

In the Las Vegas area, joblessness jumped from 5.1 percent to 10.1 percent year-over-year in February, though the gain month-to-month was smaller than in recent periods. Joblessness was up only slightly from January to February, going from 10 percent to 10.1 percent. That’s a milder increase than the area has become used to, given some recent month-to-month increases of half a percentage point or more.

But Anderson said one month of slower growth in joblessness doesn’t necessarily hint at stabilization in unemployment numbers.

“We just don’t see the loosening up of the various forces impacting our downturn right now,” he said. “Housing remains weak, credit markets remain stalled and consumers are still hesitant to spend, and those three forces really hit at the core of Nevada’s economy.”

Carlos Garcia said he feels the effect of slumping consumer spending in particular. With the city’s unemployment rate skyrocketing, sales at his Embroidery Station kiosk at the Fremont Street Experience are the slowest they’ve been in the six years he’s owned the shop. The downturn is especially noticeable in the last three months.

“People who are unemployed spend less,” Garcia said. “Other people don’t want to spend too much because the economy is shaky, so they think it’s better to keep their money in their pocket.”

And a construction worker leaving his shift at a Golden Nugget expansion job site said the upward joblessness trend worries “everybody.”

“I feel safe for another year, but unless Vegas permits pick up, we’re all going to be out of work then,” said the worker, who declined to give his name.

Nevada lost 61,000 jobs year-over-year in February, but employers pared more than 50,000 of those positions since September. That indicates an especially brisk deceleration from late 2008 to early 2009, Anderson said. The usual sectors — construction and hospitality — took the brunt of the losses, though professional and business services such as accounting and engineering also posted big drops.

The number of jobs among builders fell 16.9 percent, or 20,200 jobs, statewide to 99,000 positions. In leisure and hospitality, the state had 5.9 percent fewer jobs, losing 19,800 posts to finish February with 315,100 jobs. Professional and business services jobs fell 6.6 percent, or 10,300 positions, to 144,900 posts statewide.

The number of jobs in government, education and health care grew, thanks partly to seasonal employment expansion as students returned to school in early 2009, Anderson said. Plus, some public services and the medical sector continue to benefit from two decades of nation-leading population growth, which created a “historical gap in service availability,” Anderson said. In other words, those two sectors are still playing catch-up to years of expansion.

Cornelius Eason, president of Priority Staffing USA, said he sees the dramatic change in the state’s hiring climate inside his employment agency.

“A year ago, we were faced with a tsunami of job openings from all the gaming properties that were under construction, and most of the people in the employment field were scrambling to put together a plan of how we were going to recruit people to the state to meet the needs of the gaming industry,” Eason recalled.

But with gaming employment off dramatically, jobs in retail and restaurants have followed. And there’s little talk of any hiring crunch for casinos looking to staff up in 2009.

Still, Eason expressed hope for expansion in a few areas. CityCenter will need thousands of workers when it opens later this year, and a state bill creating green jobs in areas such as retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency could also generate fresh jobs. Nevada also appeals to manufacturers of green technologies such as solar panels, and that could boost positions in the longer term. Eason said he believes the market could welcome jobs in retrofitting buildings as early as three months from now, and those manufacturing positions might emerge in 2010.

The gains probably won’t be enough to offset losses in gaming, but they could start to reverse the trend in big month-to-month leaps, Eason said. And once the national economy begins reviving, improved discretionary spending should make a difference in the local economy, he added.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada released a statement Friday asserting that the hard times call for investments in education, renewable energy, transportation and infrastructure. The economic-stimulus bill that Congress passed in February contains funds for projects in the latter three areas, Reid stated.

“The new unemployment numbers are part of a troubling trend that makes it all too clear that we can’t do too much to dig our state out of this economic hole,” Reid said.

The rising ranks of the unemployed also make it all the more important for Nevada officials to accept the unemployment assistance set aside in the stimulus bill, Reid added.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has said he’s concerned about $77 million of the $286 million in unemployment funds, saying the payments could create an unfunded mandate that the state will eventually have to cover through higher unemployment taxes on employers.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., also weighed in on the latest data. She said the stimulus package will create 34,000 jobs in Nevada, with investments in infrastructure and education.

“This important legislation marked the beginning of our efforts to fix our economy, and I stand committed to working to take Nevada and our nation in a new direction,” she stated.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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