Statewide unemployment fell sharply in November, but job seekers continue to leave the labor force, unable or too discouraged to find work, an economist said Wednesday.
The jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent last month from 8.2 percent in October, according to state Employment Security Department data released Wednesday. It’s the first time the rate has dropped below 8 percent since January 2009.
The state had a net gain of 1,600 jobs in October and November, with most of those gains tied to seasonal hiring for the holidays.
Retail trade, for example, added 2,500 jobs in the same period, with most of that hiring taking place at clothing and general merchandise stores, Employment Security economist Joe Elling said.
But that’s where the good news ends.
The labor force continues to shrink, another reason the jobless rate fell last month. Some job seekers have given up or are choosing not to look, such as those 25 and younger who have decided to stay in school, he said.
Younger job seekers also have been squeezed out of positions by older workers, Elling said.
Here’s one measurement of a shrinking labor force for Washington, according to Employment Security: If the percentage of adults ages 25-54 who were part of the labor force in 2006-07 had remained the same in 2011, there would have been 52,000 more people in that age group in the labor force.
A shrinking labor force is a problem nationwide, he said. In Washington, it’s a larger problem outside the big job-creation counties of King and Snohomish, Elling added.
Elling also said he views the drop to 7.8 percent with caution.
“We’re still so far from what might be considered full employment,” he said, adding that one benchmark for full employment is 6.5 percent as stated by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bernanke has said he won’t change national monetary policy until the jobless rate falls to that level, Elling said.
County jobless results for November will be released Dec. 26. Thurston County’s jobless rate was 6.9 percent in October; Pierce County’s was 8 percent.