Austin jobless rate drops to 4.9 percent, lowest level in 4 years [Austin American-Statesman]By Kirk Ladendorf and Dan Zehr, Austin American-StatesmanMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Dec. 21--A surge in hiring by retailers gearing up for the holiday shopping season helped push the Central Texas unemployment rate down to 4.9 percent in November, its lowest point in more than four years.
The Texas Workforce Commission reported that Austin retailers added 4,200 jobs between October and November, compared with statewide growth in retail of 44,600 jobs.
The Central Texas job growth was primarily "people ramping up for the holiday, kind of a seasonal effect," said Alan Miller, executive director of Workforce Solutions Capital Area.
Austin's year-over-year job growth totaled 35,300, or 4.4 percent, which compared favorably with the statewide job growth of 2.6 percent.
"It is a robust picture for us and the region," Miller said. "We continue to be a step ahead of the state and the national jobs levels. This bodes well for the first quarter of 2013.
"Overall it is not a bad place to be. Our population continues to grow and the economy continues to grow. Merry Christmas to everyone."
Plenty of retailers were adding seasonal jobs, including Spec's, the Houston-based wine and spirits chain with 10 stores in the Austin area.
"Going into the fourth quarter this year, we were hiring both part-time and full-time workers," said Buzz Wilson, Spec's Central Texas director of operations.
Economist Jon Hockenyos with consulting firm TXP in Austin said retail hiring tends to reflect the optimism that store owners and managers had coming into the year.
Austin's job growth "is an indication about how folks are feeling here, which is pretty good," he said. "You wouldn't be hiring people if you weren't seeing shoppers coming in the door, or expecting to see them coming in."
Retailers had good reason to be optimistic this season. The National Retail Federation projected that this would be the best holiday shopping season in several years with a projected 4.1 percent increase to $586.1 billion.
The holiday jobs push already has peaked for this year and will start winding down next month, retailers said.
Austin-based Calendar Holdings works with about 1,000 seasonal stores and kiosks located in shopping malls around the country, including a few in Austin.
The company starts gearing up for the season in August, peaks in November and December and then winds down operations in January.
The staffing for this season "is now about to go the other way. They have probably already begun to decline," said company CEO Marc Winkelman. "We probably touched 4,000 to 5,000 people for the season."
Because most of the company's seasonal stores are run by independent contractors, most of those seasonal workers aren't directly hired by his company. Many of them, he said, are looking to supplement their existing incomes.
While retail jobs were a strong growth sector in November's job figures, Kristen McAleavy, a regional vice president with the Robert Half International staffing firm, said Austin also remains a strong hiring market for technology companies, health care, education and transportation.
"Companies are hiring and growing in Austin, and it is not just seasonal jobs," she said.
Economist Keith Phillips with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said that Austin has seen recent growth in employment services hiring, which are temporary jobs. That kind of hiring can be a leading indicator of future growth in permanent jobs, Phillips said, because many companies hire temporary workers first before converting them to permanent jobs.
The strong seasonal hiring overshadowed tepid growth in a range of other industries, according to preliminary data released Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission.
The jobs picture in the Austin metro area continued to outpace the state and the nation. Before adjusting for seasonal employment trends, the Texas unemployment rate was 5.8 percent in November. The unadjusted national rate was 7.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Employers statewide added 22,100 positions in November, the Texas Workforce Commission said.
After adjusting for seasonal trends, unemployment was at 6.2 percent in Texas and 7.7 percent nationwide.
The state workforce commission doesn't immediately release seasonally adjusted jobless rates at the local level. It's likely, given the impact of retail hiring, that the adjusted Austin-area figure will tick back above 5 percent.
All told, Austin-area employers added 5,800 jobs during the month, an increase of 0.7 percent from October.
Apart from retail jobs growth, local government added 1,900 positions in November, according to commission data.
However, those gains were partially offset by notable declines in key segments that had fueled Austin's strong employment growth throughout the year. While overall service-providing jobs ticked up slightly during the month, payrolls in goods-producing industries ticked down slightly.
Employers in the professional, scientific and technical services segment -- a group that includes many of Austin's high-tech companies -- shaved 1,300 positions, down 1.9 percent from October. Health care and social assistance companies also cut about 2 percent of their jobs during the month. Construction employment was flat to slightly down during the month.
Despite the declines, payrolls in all three segments remained notably higher than at the same time last year.
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