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Utah's unemployment rate dropped to 5.4 percent in September, down from 5.8 percent the month before, and now sits at the lowest level since the Great Recession began in 2007 and among the lowest in the country.

The decline is the second significant plunge in jobless levels in as many months. It was stuck at 6 percent from April through July of this year.

"It is a good number, but not a great number if you want to consider the total idleness of our workforce," said Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, referring to the people who may be discouraged and are no longer looking for work. He explained that Utah's unemployment rate can be impacted by two factors — people getting jobs or people leaving the workforce.

Looking at federal job growth estimates for Utah that are subject to revision— the number of jobs created in the state is up 2 percent from September 2011 (24,440 positions) — that doesn't appear strong enough to bring the rate down to 5.4 percent, he said.

It makes Utah's new number appear as unusual as the recent decline in the national rate to 7.8 percent, Knold said.

But he added that by looking at the job-growth numbers based on the state's own hard unemployment data through the first half of this year, the decline to 5.4 percent is more easily understood. That data indicated job growth in Utah increased by 3.6 percent.

"You would anticipate that rate of growth is still alive and well right now," he said.

But he added a caveat. If Utah's discouraged workers begin looking for jobs once again, their numbers could bump up the state's unemployment rate in the months ahead.

For now, only a handful of states have lower jobless rates — North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Vermont.

As estimated for September by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of Utah's industrial sectors are contributing to job growth in the state. The two exceptions are the leisure and hospitality sectors and government.

Professional and business services led all sectors, adding 11,400 jobs during the past 12 months. It also accounted for half the job growth in the past 12 months. The next-highest sector was the financial services area, which saw 2,600 jobs created.

The state's life sciences industries — an assemblage of medical manufacturing, biotechnology and environment services — was one sector that didn't swoon during the recent recession.

"In fact, it grew at a roughly 3 percent yearly pace from 2009 through early 2011," Knold said. "The industry is still growing in Utah, but recent employment gains have tempered somewhat, to around 1.5 percent to 2 percent."

Utah's Merit Medical Systems, a developer and manufacturer of disposable medical products, was one of the companies that continued to prosper during the recession. Its recent hiring activity reflects that growth.

Since the first of the year, Merit has hired around 175 employees in Utah, bringing the total number of workers in the state to 1,700, or 11 percent more than last year.

Chairman and CEO Fred Lampropoulos said the company remains in a growth mode, although it probably will slow its hiring in the months ahead to weigh the impact of the nation's new medical-device tax that is scheduled to take effect in January.

"It is going to have a big impact on us," he said, "so we'll probably step back to see exactly how it is going to affect us."

Lampropoulos noted that companywide Merit has hired 258 employees since the first of the year, which also was an 11 percent gain that brought the number of its workers in the U.S. and Europe to approximately 2,700.

"Utah's economy is doing very well," he added, "and I think the policies the state has put into place to encourage business have played a role."

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