The Associated Press May 17, 2011, 4:24PM ET

Oregon jobless rate dips to 9.6 percent

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- The jobless rate in Oregon fell to 9.6 percent in April, hitting its lowest point in more than two years, the state employment department said Tuesday.

The seasonally adjusted jobless rate was the lowest since 9.2 percent in December 2008, primarily due to an increase in new jobs, agency officials said. The rate has hovered in the mid-10 percent range for about a year after hitting a high of 11.6 percent in June 2009. The state also revised the March jobless figure down slightly from 10 percent to 9.9 percent.

"Businesses are ready to start hiring again, they're feeling more confident about the future," said Nick Beleiciks, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department.

Nationally, unemployment rose slightly to 9 percent in April from 8.8 percent in March. Oregon posted the seventh fastest job growth in the nation, state officials said.

Oregon got a boost of 1,600 jobs in April after a net loss of 2,000 jobs in March. Since October, the state has seen "healthy" growth of an average of 4,000 new jobs a month, Beleiciks said.

Even so, about 188,000 Oregonians are looking for work, and an additional 7,000 "discouraged workers" have stopped searching, Beleiciks said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber welcomed the good news at a press conference Tuesday, flanked by about a dozen people wearing "JOBS" pins, and representing company, labor, government and other interests. He said the improvement has been helped by a credit rating change to AA+ by Standard & Poor's, new capital investments and other legislative efforts to help the unemployed and small businesses.

"But we clearly can and must do more," Kitzhaber said. "The recovery is uneven. There are part so the state that have not benefited as much as other parts of the state. So we have the opportunity this session to build on this strong start."

Leisure and hospitality, educational and health services, and manufacturing saw the greatest gains in jobs over the last month.

Manufacturing added 700 jobs in April, when a loss of 500 is typical for the month. The leisure and hospitality sector gained 4,700 jobs when 1,600 is typical. And educational and health services gained 1,300 jobs, when a loss of 100 is typical for the month.

The leisure and hospitality sector has grown at the fastest pace of the major industries over the past year, adding 5,200 jobs, or 3.3 percent.

But the effects of a depressed housing market continued to resonate in the financial activities and construction sectors. The financial activities sector, which includes banking and real estate, lost 1,300 jobs in April and was the only major industry group to not show signs of recovery, Beleiciks said. The construction sector has also seen few gains. In addition, about 900 government jobs were also lost in April, according to agency figures.

Tom Chamberlain, president of Oregon's AFL-CIO, said the decrease in the jobless rate was akin to "opening the window and letting sunshine in."

But Chamberlain said the loss of government jobs was especially concerning because they often provide much needed services to citizens.

"It's all good news," he said. "It just needs to be better."

About 163,500 Oregonians are receiving unemployment benefits, down roughly 30,000 last year. New initial claims are also down 12 percent from last year's levels, according to Employment Department spokesman Tom Fuller. In 2008, about 50,000 people were receiving benefits, he said.

The unemployment benefits number includes 22,000 people who qualified for an emergency benefits program that went into effect in March. The bill aimed to provide about $30 million in benefits to 17,000 people over six weeks. Instead, an overwhelming number of people applied who had not received benefits for at least six months. It became a four-week program; the last checks were mailed this week, Fuller said.

Top job openings according to a state database include retail sales, customer service representatives, registered nurses, truck drivers, maids, housekeeping, computer and software engineers, and bank tellers, Fuller said.

"The economy is improving, and there's still a lot of improvement that's needed for things to ever feel back to how they were before," Beleiciks said. "But these are good signs in our statistics, all across the board. It's been a long time since I've been able to say that."

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Tami Abdollah can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/LATams.


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