Printed on: November 17, 2012

Idaho's jobless rate drops

By Clark Corbin

Idaho's unemployment rate improved for the fifth straight month in October, decreasing to its lowest level in 3 12 years.

Between September and October, the state's jobless rate declined by one-tenth of a percentage point, falling to 7 percent, according to a new report released Friday by the Idaho Department of Labor.

Over the past 15 months, Idaho's unemployment report has decreased every month -- except May -- when compared to the month before it.

Will Jenson, an Idaho Falls-based regional economist who works for the Labor Department, said the October jobs report offered good news on the state's economy.

"It was good to see the (unemployment) rate drop again," Jenson said. "It's continuing to decrease, and 15 months of almost continual decline is a long time."

With the decrease in October, Idaho's unemployment rate was nine-tenths of a percentage point below the national average, which increased slightly to 7.9 percent last month.

Closer to home, Bonneville County's 6 percent unemployment rate was unchanged between September and October.

Statewide, the number of unemployed Idahoans fell from 55,300 in September to 54,100 in October -- a decrease of 1,200 people. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a puzzling trend that labor officials do not understand.

For five consecutive months, the number of people counted within the labor force has declined. Since May, more than 7,000 people have dropped out of the labor force -- which is defined as the number of working-age adults who either have jobs or are looking for them.

The labor-force number is a major factor in calculating the unemployment rate, and the decreases in the labor force -- coupled with modest job growth -- drove the decrease in the unemployment rate.

In October, for example, the number of Idahoans with jobs increased by just 100 compared to the previous month, while 1,200 people left the labor force.

Bob Fick, a Labor Department researcher and spokesman, said the trend is confusing.

"We've seen some improvement (with jobs) and there ought to be some feeling of optimism, but five months of declining labor force -- that doesn't seem to fit," Fick said. "We have 7,000 people who just disappeared. We don't know where they went."

People typically are counted as leaving the labor force when they retire, stop looking for work, move out of state or die. The Labor Department report is seasonally adjusted, so it accounts for normal fluctuations in the labor force such as students going back to school and the fall harvest.

Overall, Fick said, the sustained trend of the unemployment rate declining is positive economic news. Fick doesn't expect the level of jobs to return to prerecession levels until 2015 -- adding that economists generally consider unemployment rates between 4 and 6 percent to be "healthy."

"The economy is not where it was in 2007, with everything booming again," Fick said. "But it's definitely improving from where it was in 2009."

Clark Corbin can be reached at 542-6761. Comment on this story at Post Talk, talk.