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Sky’s limit for Utah’s laborers

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Happy Labor Day to all you laborers out there and condolences and good job hunting to the 3,160 Utahns who have been laid off this year. (There are undoubtedly more, but those are the ones that have made the news.)

I've spent so many years writing stories on Utah's booming economy and low unemployment that all the recent job cuts make me think Chicken Little may have had it right after all.

But is the sky really falling? For those who have been shown the corporate door, no question. As President Harry Truman sagely noted, a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours.

Still, in the greater scheme of things, 3,000 to 4,000 layoffs do not a depression make, or even a recession, said Jeff Thredgold, president of Thredgold Economic Associates and economic consultant to Zions Bank.

Out of a Utah work force of some 1 million, it amounts to perhaps 0.3 of a percent, he said, leaving the state's unemployment rate still under 4 percent, which he says is still "extraordinarily low" and "essentially, full employment."

For those who got sacked, this is the good news. It means their chances of finding a new job are excellent, although Thredgold believes the "cleansing process" in the over-hyped information technology sector — computers, telecommunications and such — is not yet over.

Personal income is another gauge of how Utahns are doing economically, and the latest study on that subject by the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research, published last month, shows that while our per-capita personal income (PCPI) of $23,907 in 1999 (the latest figures available) was $5,769 below the national average, we're doing better than seven other states.

I recall when Mississippi was the only state that had a lower PCPI than Utah, but beginning in 1992 we began to move up the income ladder. Now Utahns have more personal income that those in Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and, of course, Ole Miss, which continues to have the nation's lowest PCPI at $20,993.

Within Utah, the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots is even more distinct, ranging from a low of $13,639 in San Juan County to $41,642 in Summit, where the well-heeled residents of Park City and environs create a pocket of prosperity found nowhere else in the state.

"I heard someone say that in Utah, all money and water flows to the Wasatch Front, and that seems to be true," said Alan E. Isaacson, the bureau research analyst who wrote the personal income report. Park City is the Wasatch Front's answer to Beverly Hills.

The second-highest PCPI in the state is found in Salt Lake County, but it's 34 percent below Summit at $27,350. Weber County is third at $23,160 and Wasatch County, which gets some of the spillover from Summit, is fourth at $22,643.

The numbers show that only two counties, Salt Lake and Summit, have per capita incomes greater than the state average, while the other 27 counties fall below the Utah average.

But if the per capita caveat is left out, it's no contest: Salt Lake County wins by a landslide, with total personal income of $23.25 billion in '99, accounting for nearly one-half of all personal income in Utah.

Utah County was a distant second at $6.52 billion, Davis was third at $5.41 billion and Weber fourth at $4.29 billion.

And Summit County with its Park City millionaires? In seventh place at $1.15 billion, proving once again that there is strength — and wealth — in numbers.

The BEBR study also puts paid to any lingering doubts that Utah has left its agrarian roots behind. Less than 1 percent of the state's total earnings come from farming.

E-MAIL: max@desnews.com