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Gila County’s unemployment rate has fallen by nearly a full percentage point in the past year, finally closing the gap with the booming state economy.

The October unemployment figures set the county rate at 5 percent, barely above the state’s 4.8 percent adjusted for the season. The state’s rate hasn’t changed in the past year.

Nationally, the seasonally adjusted rate remained at 3.6 — also unchanged for the past year. The state’s seasonally adjusted rate was 4.3 percent. The county figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal job trends.

Even better, the average wage statewide rose a healthy 4.1 percent, compared to a 3 percent increase nationally. Overall, the state’s job growth remains strong compared to other states, good news for the state budget, where the reserves rose above $1 billion this year despite continued tax cuts.

The situation’s probably even brighter for northern Gila County — which typically has a lower rate than southern Gila County, affected by high unemployment rates on the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache reservations as well as a sluggish economy in Globe and Miami, where mining has never recovered from its former heights.

However, the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity doesn’t report figures by towns, so the true unemployment rate in northern Gila County remains a matter of guesswork.

Gila County’s rate is now just barely above neighboring Coconino County, which has the benefit of the economic activity in Flagstaff and Sedona.

Gila County remains in much better shape than many of the surrounding rural counties. The unemployment rates in other rural counties include 8.9 percent in Apache County, 6.4 percent in Navajo, 16 percent in Yuma, and 9.5 percent in Santa Cruz. Rates were lower in sparsely inhabited counties like Graham (4.1 percent), Greenlee (4.1 percent) and Yavapai (4 percent).

The figures included some interesting fine print.

For instance, unemployment remains low in low-wage sectors like the restaurant business. Some business leaders predicted that the state’s steep increase in the minimum wage from about $8 to $12 would result in layoffs and rising unemployment in that sector. So far, there’s no sign of such an impact — although income has risen sharply in those sectors.

Statewide, the jobless rate dropped a spare tenth of a point from September to October, although with rates at historically low levels it was unlikely they’d drop further.

Virtually every sector showed gains, with a total increase of 30,000 jobs statewide.

The states brick and mortar stores even held their own in October, after months of losses to booming, online sales. Despite an added 600 department store jobs for the month, the sector’s still 1,400 jobs below last year.

Restaurants have continued hiring, despite the impact of the boost in minimum wage. The sector gained 4,300 jobs in October — and now stands at 8,000 jobs above last year.

The construction and mining sectors also showed a big, 12 percent gain in jobs from the same time last year. Once the mainstay of the state economy, the recession devastated construction — which has been slow to recover.

The number of government employees rose 10 percent, which was one of the hardest hit sectors in the recession.

The unemployment figures retain one worrisome trend — the still high percentage of workers who have been unemployed for six months, despite their best efforts to find work.

Nationally, a third of the unemployed have been looking for work for at least six months. That number peaked at about 45 percent during the recession in about 2010. It has since declined, but not nearly as much as it normally does after a normal recession.

Prior to the 2008 recession, the share of the long-term unemployed bobbed about between 10 percent and 20 percent of those seeking work.

Economists say the shift reflects fundamental underlying changes in the economy. Essentially, there’s a rising pool of workers who employers don’t hire even when they have hard-to-fill vacancies. Studies have suggested part of the problem lies in employers’ reluctance to hire the longtime unemployed because they haven’t had a job in six months.

Changes in the education and skill level required by many jobs may also contribute. For instance, the wage gap between the college educated and the rest of the workforce has hit record levels. High school grads make an average of $31,000 while college grads make an average of $56,000.

As a result, the persistence of long-term unemployment may contribute to a second structural problem — the number of people dropping out of the workforce and relying on family, irregular employment, federal disability payments or other means of support.

About 63 percent of working-age adults remain in the workforce, compared to about 67 percent in 2000. Workforce participation plunged during the last recession and never recovered.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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