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Utah jobless rate again rises slightly

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Unemployment in Utah rose to 3.5 percent in March, up a tenth of a point from February and three-tenths higher than the average for all of last year, the Utah Department of Workforce Services reported Friday.

"Utah's unemployment rate for the first three months of 2001 is slightly higher than the very consistent 3.2 percent for April through December 2000," said Ken Jensen, senior economist for the department.

"However, this is no cause for alarm," he assured, noting that the current jobless rate is virtually the same as it was during the state's seven-year economic boom during the 1990s.

Nationally, the U.S. unemployment rate rose to 4.3 percent in March, the highest level in 20 months and the first time in seven months that the national economy has lost jobs.

In real numbers, some 39,600 Utahns were unemployed last month, up from 35,500 in March 2000, when the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent.

The other primary employment indicator tracked by the department — the year-over rate of increase in the number of non-farm wage and salaried jobs — was at 2.4 percent last month, down a tenth from the revised February figure.

Over the past two years, that statistic has remained "remarkably consistent" noted Jensen, ranging between 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent.

During the first quarter of 2001, the number of claims for unemployment insurance was about 25 percent higher than in the first three months of last year, said Bob Gross, executive director of the department. Moreover, the ratio of claims to total non-farm jobs was the highest it has been since 1993.

While that might suggest a serious weakening in Utah's job picture, Gross said the ratio is relatively low when compared to the 1980s and early '90s.

"Therefore, taking these and the other indicators into consideration, Utah's economy, while showing some signs of softness, remains strong," Gross said.

Over the past 12 months, the state's 66,000 employers created about 26,000 new non-farm jobs. The private sector generated some 21,000 of them, a 2.4 percent increase. Government employment grew at virtually the same pace, 2.6 percent.

As expected, employment in the state's construction industry has leveled off, ending 11 consecutive years of strong growth. There has been no gain in construction jobs over the past 12 months.

Even maintaining the status quo indicates the resiliency of the construction industry here, Gross said, although the eminent completion of I-15 reconstruction, coupled with few new projects starting up, means it's likely that the industry will continue to lose jobs this year.

Services, the state's largest industrial division with 29 percent of the jobs, grew at nearly 5 percent in the first quarter, by far the largest increase and responsible for more than half of the net job creation.

Computer services added 5,100 jobs during the quarter, an 18 percent growth rate. Lodging and auto repair services expanded by less than 2 percent.

Wholesale and retail, the state's second-largest sector with nearly a quarter of the jobs, produced 3,700 net new jobs over the past 12 months, but that's a mere 1.5 percent growth rate.

Manufacturing in Utah entered a slump in 1999 but may be beginning to pull out of it. About 500 net new jobs were created over the past 12 months, up 0.04 percent — not much, but far better than the 2.4 percent loss the industry has suffered nationwide over the same period.


E-mail: max@desnews.com