BY JOURNAL STAFF and the Associated Press
Statewide unemployment numbers in Idaho dropped below 8 percent for the first time in two years, with Bannock County experiencing a rate of 7.2 percent, according to the latest figures released by the Idaho Department of Labor. It marked the eighth straight month that Idaho’s rate has fallen. It is now a full percentage point below the recession-era high in July 2011.
Bannock County reported a civilian workforce of 41,939 with 3,012 people out of work.
Other counties in Southeast Idaho, with the exception of Power County also showed unemployment below 8 percent. Power had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent; Bingham, 6.4; Bear Lake, 4.8; Caribou, 6.5; Franklin, 4.3; and Oneida, 4.3.
More than 2,500 more Idaho workers were on the job in March than in February as employers across the state hired more than 13,500 people to replace retirees and others as well as fill new jobs. It was the first time since 2007 that March hiring has exceeded 13,000 although it was still about 2,000 below the average during the expansion from 2003 through 2007.
Early spring hiring activity kept up with the continued expansion of the statewide labor force to drive unemployment lower, reinforcing signs that Idaho’s economy is growing again if slowly.
A March labor force increase of nearly 1,900 was the highest one-month jump in two years and a signal that people are progressively more optimistic about their job prospects, according to the state department. In fact, the rise in total employment outstripped the increase in the labor force for the eighth month in a row.
However, according to the Associated Press, momentum in U.S. hiring and home sales appears to be slowing, according to fresh data. The average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month is at a three-month high. And fewer Americans bought previously owned homes in March after mild weather boosted sales in the previous two months.
A possible weakening in two critical elements of the U.S. economy suggests growth could stay modest this year.
“We are in for a few more quarters of moderate growth before stronger gains might appear,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. More hiring is needed to drive up wages and salaries and fuel the recovery, he added.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dipped last week by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000. But that was only after the department revised up the previous week’s data to show 8,000 more people applied for benefits than first estimated.
The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose last week by 5,500, to 374,750. That’s the highest level in three months, although it is still 9 percent lower than the level from September.
Unemployment benefit applications have started to tick up in recent weeks after months of steady declines. When applications fall below 375,000, it generally suggests hiring will be strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Economists said temporary layoffs stemming from the spring holidays may have inflated the figures. Many school employees are laid off during spring break and are eligible to file for benefits.
Still, the recent rise in unemployment aid applications follows a report that hiring weakened in March after three stronger months of job growth.
The unemployment benefits report “suggests job growth is slowing,” said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. “Still growing, mind you, but at a slower pace.”
Home sales have also lost some vitality from the start of the year.
The National Association of Realtors said sales of previously owned homes fell 2.6 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. That’s down from a revised 4.6 million sold in February. In healthier markets, sales typically are closer to 6 million.
A mild winter may have encouraged more people to buy in January and February, essentially stealing sales from March.
“We are most certainly not set to declare that the housing recovery is over but a strong start to the spring selling season is simply not in the data,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG in New York.