STANISLAUS COUNTY — The jobless rate fell to its lowest point for a February in the past five years, during a time of year when the area unemployment picture is normally at its bleakest.
The Stanislaus County unemployment rate fell close to a percentage point from January to 14.9 percent, according to a report released Friday by the California Employment Development Department.
The dip reflects the area's continued growth out of recession and road to recovery. Last year at this time, unemployment hovered at 16.8 percent. Two years ago in February, unemployment sat at 18.2 percent.
"Count me surprised, I wouldn't have suspected something to come in under 15 percent this month," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "The news in this report is the unemployment rate improvement, and it's pretty significant. This is a 0.7 percent decline in February, which is a really surprisingly large decline for February. This is an April-like decline in February."
January, February and March historically have had the highest unemployment rates for the year in the county as the region waits for agriculture and manufacturing to kick into season in April.
The rate's February dip was driven by year-to-year job growth in retail, leisure and hospitality and warehousing transportation. Retail added 700 jobs from this time last year, with leisure and hospitality following with 500 more jobs and transportation warehousing increasing 400.
"Overall, it's positive this month," said Nati Martinez, a labor market analyst for the EDD. "If you compare from a year ago, it is definitely looking good."
The only industry to show a significant year-to-year decrease in jobs was government, which lost 400 jobs, mostly in local education services.
The dip in February in the county coincides with a drop in the state's unemployment rate to its lowest point in four years. After three months at 9.8 percent, the rate fell slightly to 9.6 percent.
Statewide, the greatest job gains came in construction, financial services and leisure and hospitality. Manufacturing, transportation and health services slipped over the month.
The number of people unemployed in California fell below 1.8 million in February. That's down from 2 million last February.
The Stanislaus County improvements are driven less by a shrinking of the labor force, which was responsible for some of the rate decreases last year, and more by actual job growth.
This year should see continued improvements in industry growth, including transportation warehousing, which is set for a more than 1,000-job jump when Amazon opens its new fulfillment center in Patterson in late August or early September. Large-scale hiring for the center is expected to begin in May.
Michael said Amazon's arrival should help spur even more growth in the area's transportation warehousing industry.
"Don't think we're at the end of the line in seeing growth in distribution centers and fulfillment centers in this area," he said. "It was a fast-growing area before Amazon came, it will be a fast-growing industry after they're here."
This also should be a year of change in the health care industry as it prepares for the provisions of the Affordable Care Act to go into effect. In Modesto, two new speciality hospitals, both hiring about 150 positions each, are expected to open this year.
Michael said a good indicator of even stronger growth in the economy will be the real estate and accompanying construction market. Construction, which was decimated after the housing bubble burst, has seen 13 straight months of year-to-year job growth. But improvements might continue gradually for a while.
"Construction is one to watch for recovery," he said. "But it's not on my short list for this year; we'll see more of it next year."