MODESTO — Ask Nathan Wagner if the Stanislaus County job picture is improving and the Ceres resident can tell you firsthand.
In the past four years, the 52-year-old has been through two job searches. The first one began in 2008 and lasted two years. The second one, in 2012, lasted six months. He has been at his new job at a technical staffing firm in Modesto since September.
"It was a lot easier and I had more opportunities the second time," he said. "I was really worried I would have to go through this all again when I lost my job (last year). The first time, we almost lost our house. But now I can tell from being in the staffing industry that more people are hiring again."
Wagner's experience in the slowly improving Central Valley job market echoes the numbers. Stanislaus County saw what economists consider its first full year of recovery on the jobs front in 2012, closing out the year with an unemployment rate more than a full percentage point below where it was a year ago.
Although the jobless rate ticked up half a percentage point to 15 percent for December, it sat at 16.2 percent a year ago, according to the Employment Development Department. In 2012, the county's jobless rate hit a low of 13.4 percent in September and a high of 17.3 percent in March.
Despite making improvement, the rate remains above the state and national rates in December of 9.8 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
"This is certainly the first year of recovery in this region where we can clearly, unambiguously say things are better than a year ago," said economist Jeff Mi- chael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "This past year, we actually made some progress. It's something to feel good about, but still awfully slow."
The county's jobless rate followed historical seasonal patterns again last year because of the area's strong reliance on agriculture and related industries. Still, some other industries managed to see positive numbers after several years of shedding workers.
The trade, transportation and utilities sector saw an increase in average annual job numbers last year, as did construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and educational and health services.
The only field not to see average annual employment numbers increase or stay relatively flat was government, which continued to register losses.
"We saw some industries pick up from 2011," said EDD labor market analyst Nati Martinez. "The majority of (industries) in the last five years definitely had significant job losses, and now some are starting to recover."
Some industries growing
The one industry that managed to buck the job- loss trend during the recession was educational and health services, driven by the strength of the county's health care services.
California State University, Stanislaus, business economics Professor Gokce Soydemir said the region could see more robust growth in the coming year. He said the county should see more gains in industries such as construction, manufacturing, health care, retail and transportation.
"The economy is picking up steam," he said. "All indicators point to things moving in the right direction. And we will improve at a quicker rate than we did this year."
Soydemir said the arrival of the new Amazon distribution center in Patterson will be a major boost for the area. The 1 million-square-foot center is expected to open in July and bring hundreds of jobs to the area.
"Amazon is going to send a strong signal to other companies. This area has a lot of land and a lot of low-cost resources," he said. "Companies are paying attention, and that's how it starts."
Michael said even the struggling sector of government could see a turnaround in 2013. He said the public sector is poised to level out and Proposition 30 funds could greatly benefit the Central Valley.
All of this is welcome news to the more than 35,000 Stanislaus County residents looking for work and for those who found jobs in 2012, including Ceres resident Wagner. After nearly going into foreclosure and draining his 401(k) to stay afloat, Wagner said he feels optimistic for the first time in a long time.
"I am very happy, the job I have has great potential and is looking for growth," he said. "The worst is over. I see nothing but good things in the future. I like the valley and I'm staying here."