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Utah's unemployment rate in March sank below 5 percent for the first time in more than four years as job creation across the state continued to surge, the Department of Workforce Services reported Friday.
Across the state, the jobless rate fell to 4.9 percent of the labor force last month, from 5.2 percent in February. The last time unemployment in Utah was under 5 percent was in November 2008, during the recession. That month, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. It jumped to 6.8 percent in December 2008.
Strong job growth was responsible for the decline. Employment in the state increased 4 percent between March 2012 and last month, as 48,700 jobs were created during the 12-month period. The long-term average is 3.1 percent.
Utah's economy stands in stark contrast to the rest of the country.
Between February and March, the number of people working in Utah increased by 8,900 people. In a separate survey, employers said they created 6,800 jobs 7.7 percent of just 88,000 jobs added in the U.S. last month, a pace too sluggish to make much of a dent in the unemployment rate. Economists had expected the U.S. economy to produce 200,000 jobs in March.
"It's very good growth for the state of Utah," said Juliette Tennert, Gov. Gary Herbert's chief economists, who added that, for the U.S., "88,000 is disappointing. It's at least positive but it really is well below potential," she said.
U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high more than three years after the recession ended. In March, the jobless rate stood at 7.6 percent, while the year-over-year employment growth rate was just 1.5 percent less than half as fast as Utah.
"I'm highly encouraged," Carrie Mayne, chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Services, said of the business conditions in Utah. "There really is no aspect of [the monthly employment summary] that tells us that this is still a stuttering economy."
Job growth was spread across all sectors of Utah's economy, with the exception of government and natural resource-dependent companies. Leading the way was the sector that includes wholesalers, retailers, transportation companies and utilities, where 10,800 jobs have been added in the past year.
With the housing market improving, construction companies put on 5,500 new workers. Right now, construction is the fastest-growing industrial sector in Utah, with employment up 8.6 percent since March 2012.
The manufacturing sector has created 3,700 jobs in the past year as big companies like ITT Exelis and Boeing Co. expand their operations in Salt Lake County and put hundreds of high-paying jobs into the pipeline. Over the next two decades, Exelis, which produces parts for military and commercial aircraft, expects to add an average of 100 new workers a year, said Mike Blain, vice president and general manager of the company's aerostructures unit.
Last August, Exelis opened a 250,000-square-foot design and manufacturing center on Amelia Earhart Drive in the International Center, just west of Salt Lake City International Airport. The new facility adds to Exelis' existing 130,000-square-foot factory, where 200 people already have jobs. Over the past seven month, the company has hired 50 skilled composite materials technicians, machinists and engineers for the expansion, and more are coming.
"We are on the path that we laid out in August, that's certainly my plan. I'd like to see my grandkids get jobs out here one day," Blain said.
In January, Boeing showed off a huge building it bought in West Jordan, where it will manufacture composite horizontal stabilizer parts for the new 787-9 Dreamliner jet. The company will employ 100 people at the 850,000-square-foot factory when production begins at the end of 2014.
The building will support Boeing's fabrication and assembly operations on the east side of the airport, where 575 employees already work.