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Job growth rises 3.5% — the best since '97

Deseret Morning News graphic

New construction projects and a booming professional business sector created 39,600 new Utah jobs in the 12 months ended Oct. 31, a growth rate of 3.5 percent, according to a report released Tuesday by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

In fact, Utah's new jobs represented 2.1 percent of all of the new jobs added in the United States over the past year, according to Mark Knold, senior economist for the department.

The state's robust job additions helped to drive down Utah's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate to 4.5 percent for the month of October, down 0.6 percentage points from 5.1 percent compared to October 2004.

Knold said Utah's historical job growth rate has averaged about 3.3 percent.

"The interesting thing though is we haven't been at the average since 1997," Knold said. "We've had seven years of subpar employment growth in the state, and this year we climbed back to our long-term average."

Utah's biggest job gains came in the construction industry, which added 9,700 jobs in the year ended Oct. 31. That 12.6 percent increase was the highest rate of growth seen in 10 years, Knold said.

"There's so much construction activity and investment and positive outlook towards Utah," Knold said. "What is turbo-charging it is commercial and industrial activities — new warehouses, hospitals and a lot of commercial projects. A lot of those are being done in response to the immediate need of the economy and the anticipated future need of the economy. It's an investment activity. It's a very positive sign."

Rich Thorn, president of the Utah chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, said all sectors of Utah's construction industry are currently in high demand, including carpenters, cement finishers, heavy equipment operators, electricians and truck drivers.

"The construction industry is a major driver of Utah's economy," Thorn said. "These are, relatively speaking, high-paying jobs. Whether it's residential, the heavy highway industry, underground utilities or commercial building, they're all pretty strong right now."

Professional and business jobs — which include accountants, engineers, computer system designers, architects and attorneys — saw an increase of 7,700 positions, a 5.5 percent rise.

The report singled out Uintah County, which showed employment growth at nearly 8 percent in the past year. Much of that growth came from oil and natural gas industry. Half of the 900 new jobs created over the past year in the natural resources sector are centered in Uintah County, the report said.

"That kind of growth takes one back to the energy boom of the 1970s," Knold said. "That's exactly what's happening again."

Jeff Thredgold, president of Salt Lake-based Thredgold Economic Associates and an economic consultant to Zions Bank, said Utah's low unemployment rate will make it tougher for employers to find people to fill positions.

"As the unemployment goes lower, it's more difficult to find quality people or find skilled people," Thredgold said. "There is also more demand on your small businesses."

Thredgold said neighboring Idaho has shown record-low unemployment rates in four of the past five months, currently running at 3.6 percent.

The U.S. unemployment rate in October declined to 5 percent in October, fueled by 1.9 million new jobs created in the past year.

Knold said the recent hurricanes and subsequent run-up in energy prices did not throw any kind of curve to Utah's economy.