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By Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento’s unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in 2 1/2 years – and the region is showing signs of finally joining the economic recovery.Thanks to unusually strong holiday retail hiring, Sacramento unemployment dropped half a percentage point in November, to 10.9 percent, the state Employment Development Department said Friday. Overall, payrolls grew by 4,000 jobs.It was the first time that Sacramento unemployment dipped below 11 percent since May 2009. A year ago, the rate was 12.8 percent. “This is the first month when Sacramento is showing a clear gain … in a long time,” said Jeff Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific.Statewide unemployment fell four-tenths of a point, to 11.3 percent. It was one of the most dramatic one-month declines in years.But the state as a whole added just 6,600 jobs, following several stronger months. The payroll figure is based on a broader survey and is considered more reliable than the unemployment rate.”We didn’t gain any ground here,” said Howard Roth, chief economist at the state Department of Finance.The monthly unemployment numbers are often revised, and Roth is convinced the 11.3 percent figure won’t stick. But he said overall trends are good.”I’m not discouraged; it’s just a lull,” he said. The state has added 233,000 jobs in the past year, bringing California’s unemployment rate down from 12.5 percent.Until now, Sacramento had been falling behind much of the rest of California, due to a weak housing market and a public sector facing deep cuts. But in November, as the state’s job market took a break from its recent surge, Sacramento’s economy perked up.”You almost don’t believe it,” Michael said of the November report. “It’s possible we’ve seen the worst.”Double-digit unemployment is still nothing to crow about, of course. Michael cautioned that the November numbers look robust only in comparison to the profound weakness that’s afflicted Sacramento the past few years.”It still reflects a very weak economy,” he said.Much of the November job growth came in holiday retail hiring, which was considerably better than average.The retail scene benefited from the complete reopening of the Westfield Galleria at Roseville, which was partially closed at holiday time last year because of an arson fire that badly damaged a big part of the mall.Even allowing for the Galleria effect, the hiring was impressive. Sacramento retailers normally add 3,100 jobs in November. This year, they added 4,400 jobs, said EDD labor market consultant Diane Patterson.”We’ve had a really good Christmas, our numbers are strong,” said Tod Strain, general manager at Arden Fair mall.There are indications the growth in retailing could continue past the holidays. The Palladio at Broadstone shopping center in Folsom, which has stood mostly empty, recently signed several major tenants.The latest local jobs report also showed surprising strength in construction, finance and manufacturing.Melissa Washington, a Lincoln employment consultant who runs a volunteer organization called Active Job Seekers of America, said health care and information technology firms are expanding.”I don’t see massive hiring, but it is a positive,” she said.While the area’s construction industry shrank in November, the layoffs were smaller than usual for the season, Patterson said. The dry weather might have played a role in keeping workers on the job, but construction employment is running about 6 percent higher than at the same time last year.”Even a modest improvement in this sector is important,” Michael said. “It can go a long way toward healing the economy.”He said Sacramento still faces considerable obstacles, including the prospect of more downsizing in the public sector. Gov. Jerry Brown this week announced another $980 million in statewide budget cuts in education and child care, set to take effect next month.And the November job gains still leave Sacramento lagging the economies of the coastal markets.For the past year, statewide job growth has averaged 1.7 percent. In Sacramento, it’s about 0.9 percent.”Job growth remains centered in the urban coastal regions and in the technology, trade and tourism sectors,” said Palo Alto economic consultant Steve Levy in a memo to reporters.