State jobless rate falls to 7.2%, lowest since ’09

— Arkansas’ unemployment rate continued its decline in April, dropping two-tenths of a percentage point from the previous month to 7.2 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday.

The rate was at its lowest since February 2009, when it was 7.1 percent.

The monthly survey of several hundred Arkansas households showed 30,700 more Arkansans were employed last month than in April of last year and 9,500 fewer Arkansans were unemployed.

The labor force and the number of employed Arkansans have increased for nine consecutive months, and the number of unemployed also has fallen for nine months. The rate in July was 8.2 percent, the highest since 1987.

“One of the interesting things about this report is the contrast between it and the national unemployment report two weeks ago,” said Michael Pakko, chief economist at the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

The national unemployment level fell to 8.1 percent in April from 8.2 percent in March but was met with some skepticism because the decline in the labor force was responsible for the drop in the unemployment rate, Pakko said.

“The gist of the [ Arkansas] report is that we’re seeing the labor force expanding and the employment market is able to absorb those new workers,” Pakko said.

Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said, “When you look at the unemployment number, the labor force growing and unemployment shrinking in the past year, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

But Friday’s report wasn’t completely positive.

A different measure of employment - taken from payroll data submitted by thousands of employers to the government instead of the survey of Arkansas households - showed that Arkansas still had 5,400 fewer jobs last month than in April of last year. And six major industry sectors had fewer jobs over the past year, led by professional and business services, which lost 5,500, and manufacturing, which lost 5,000 jobs.

And Deck said that “there are some sectors of the state that are still in pain.”

Manufacturing and construction continue to be a drag on job growth, Deck said. Construction has lost 2,400 jobs in the past year. The trade, transportation and utilities sector dropped 2,500 jobs in the past year, Deck said.

“There were a lot of sectors in the negative category from April to April,” Deck said.

And most metropolitan areas in the state are still hurting, Deck said.

Northwest Arkansas is outperforming other areas in the state in employment growth, Deck said.

The area added 6,300 jobs in the past year, with the leisure and hospitality sector, made up of mostly restaurants, growing by 1,600 jobs, and the professional and business services sector adding 2,000 jobs.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville accounts for some of the growth, Deck said.

“The impact is clearly visible in the numbers,” Deck said. “They’ve already blown away their estimate for [attendance] for the year, and it is less than six months into it.”

Most of the jobs attributable to Crystal Bridges show up in the leisure and hospitality sector, Deck said.

Texarkana grew by 1,100 jobs over April 2011, and Jonesboro added 200 jobs in the past year.

But the other four metropolitan areas had 12-month losses in jobs, Deck said.

Fort Smith dropped 5,600 jobs in the past year, or about 5 percent of its jobs in the past year, Deck said.

“So one in every 20 jobs Fort Smith had last year are not there right now,” Deck said. “Fort Smith continues to see challenges.” Fort Smith lost 1,000 jobs when Whirlpool Corp. said last year that it would close its refrigerator plant.

Also last year, Rheem Manufacturing moved 250 jobs to Mexico, Trane Inc. laid off about 175, and Southern Steel and Wire Co. closed its plant and laid off almost 120. Mitsubishi Power Systems Americas Inc. has delayed the opening of a completed wind turbine plant, which was projected to employ more than 300.

Little Rock has lost 4,100 jobs since April 2011, Hot Springs was down 1,200 jobs, and Pine Bluff lost 800 jobs.

Nationally, Nevada remains the state with the highest unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent in April, followed by Rhode Island, 11.2; California, 10.9; North Carolina, 9.4 percent; and New Jersey, 9.1 percent.

North Dakota had the lowest unemployment rate in April, at 3 percent, followed by Nebraska, 3.9 percent; South Dakota, 4.3 percent; Vermont, 4.6 percent; and New Hampshire, 5 percent.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 05/19/2012

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