Stanislaus jobless rate climbs to 10 percent

The unemployment rate shot up to a startling 10 percent in Stanislaus County in December, marking the first time the county has seen a double-digit rate in three years.

The county gained about 800 jobs last month, according to state Employment Development Department numbers released Friday. However, that growth was not enough to match the number of people seeking work.

Last month's unemployment figures are the highest Stanislaus County has recorded since January 2005, when the rate was 10 percent.

Liz Baker, a labor market analyst for the EDD, said several factors likely contributed to the surge in unemployment, including the housing meltdown, which has resulted in significant job cuts in the construction and financial sectors.

But the basic explanation comes down to this: Stanislaus County's labor force is growing. More people are unemployed -- about 23,000 last month -- and those who are looking for jobs are having a much tougher time finding them.

"It's been hard," said Troy Cannon, who was at the downtown Modesto EDD office Friday filling out job applications.

The Ceres resident has been searching for work for a year and half, after being laid off from his construction job. He worked for a family-owned company doing industrial work.

"I'm willing to start at the bottom and bring my own tools," said Cannon, who has been told by construction firms that no one is hiring. "You would think I have a lot to offer, but there's no takers. I'm just trying to make ends meet."

Cannon has been applying for nonconstruction jobs, such as those at fast food restaurants. But at 42, he said, his application isn't desirable to managers who tend to hire teenagers or senior citizens.

He's been doing handyman jobs and recycling for extra cash, and his wife is training to become a truck driver.

"I'm a jack-of-all-trades," he said. "I'm willing to do anything."

'A rather large increase'

Stanislaus County's jobless rate in December is a jump of more than two percentage points over last year's rate of 7.7 percent. That concerns some analysts.

"In Modesto, that's a rather large increase," said Chuck Williams, dean of the Eberhardt School of Business at the University of Pacific in Stockton.

Past years have seen much smaller upticks in unemployment, Baker said, usually at less than one percentage point. A two percentage point increase "goes against the trend we have seen between 2001 to 2007. That is not a good sign," Baker said.

Statewide, about 1.1 million Californians were looking for work last month, an increase of 88,000 from November and 255,000 from December 2006.

The unemployment rate in the state jumped to 6.1 percent in December, compared with 5.6 percent in November and 4.8 percent in the year-ago period, according to the EDD.

"The economic mood continues to sour, but proposed fiscal and ongoing monetary policy should help bolster the economy," Williams said. "Whether or not the economy actually enters a recession, we are in for a rough ride during the first half of 2008."

Williams said despite statewide job losses in industries related to housing, there are signs of job growth in several service sectors. He predicted a stronger economy in the second half of 2008.

State tries creating jobs

To combat rising unemployment, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed Friday spending $29 billion in unallocated funds from infrastructure bonds to generate jobs in road and school construction as well as other infrastructure projects.

He ordered state job assistance centers to extend their hours of operation.

"We will continue to identify other steps we can take to stimulate our economy," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

Job growth has been slowing nationally for several months under the strain of the housing slump, rising energy costs and a credit crisis in the financial sector. Nationwide, the jobless rate was 4.8 percent.

In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, the only other county to top double digits was Merced. Its unemployment rate was 12.2 percent last month, up from 10.3 percent in November and 9.5 percent in December 2006.

San Joaquin County's unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in December, an increase from the previous year's figure of 7.4 percent. The county was hit especially hard by cutbacks in the construction industry, which was down by about 1,400 jobs last month, Baker said.

Better numbers in the foothills

The foothill counties of Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa saw increases in unemployment compared with the previous year, although none was as high as in the valley.

Mariposa County had the highest jobless figure, at 7.3 percent last month.

Tuolumne and Calaveras trailed slightly, at 7.1 percent and 7.2 percent respectively.

The most difficult part about today's job market is finding a way to make yourself stand out from an avalanche of job applicants, said Adella Jacobo, who was at the EDD office Friday writing a cover letter.

She previously worked as a lab assistant at Avenal State Prison in Kings County but moved to Modesto because her husband's job relocated to the city. Jacobo wasn't able to get a transfer, so she was forced to resign.

Jacobo, 35, has been looking for work in the Modesto area for about five months. At first she focused on similar medical positions but didn't have any success. Now, she's trying for jobs in unrelated fields.

"There's one job opening and 50 million people apply for it," Jacobo said. "You have to have bells and whistles on your résumé to be considered."

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.