Sonoma County last month reached a milestone rarely met here in the past 13 years, an unemployment rate below 4 percent.
The county’s jobless rate in April dipped to 3.8 percent, its lowest level in nine years, the state reported Friday. The rate, which declined from a revised 4.1 percent in March, is the latest sign of a rising economy that is driving job growth to unprecedented levels — and making it difficult for some employers to find skilled workers.
“I think it just further shows how strong and broad the recovery is and how strong the economy is,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “It’s just firing on all cylinders.”
Such low employment has been unseen in Sonoma County for most of the new millennium.
In the past 13 years, a period encompassing 156 months, the county’s jobless rate has dipped below 4 percent just seven times. The last occasion came in May 2007 — seven months before the recession officially began — when unemployment hit 3.8 percent.
In the aftermath of that downturn, the jobless rate soared to 11.5 percent in January 2010 and stayed at double-digit levels for more than a year.
In April, unemployment in Sonoma County was well below the jobless rates for United States, at 5.0 percent, and California, at 5.3 percent.
A record 206,600 people held wage and salary jobs in the county last month, an increase of 800 jobs from March and 4,100 from a year earlier.
“We’ve improved and it looks like we’re getting to a rate that was (last measured) before the downturn, which is very good,” said Janet Klaven, a labor market consultant with the state Employment Development Department.
In the past year, the county’s food service businesses and pubs added 900 jobs, followed by the health care sector with 800 jobs. School districts added 600 jobs; retail trade, 500; and the administrative and support service sector, 500.
Of all the county’s major business sectors, only agriculture shed jobs during the last year. But the drop was significant, a decline of 1,000 jobs. The nearly 16 percent decrease left farm employment in the county at 5,300.
Those involved with the county’s dominant farm crop, wine grapes, say the employment problem for growers is a lack of supply, not a drop in demand.
“They’re just having a hard time finding the workers they need,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County.
Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said the shortage of farm workers isn’t unique. The county’s drum-tight labor market also is impacted by an aging workforce, a relatively high cost of housing and current immigration laws that have placed obstacles in front of workers who lack legal status to live here.
“Absolutely it’s much harder to find employees right now,” she said.
Tourism and other industries also may be challenged this summer to find employees, said Stone.
“It’s a great time to be looking for work,” he said. “It’s a tough time to be hiring people. Five years ago, it was exactly the opposite.”
Sonoma last month ranked fifth among the state’s 58 counties based on the lowest unemployment rates. Marin ranked second at 3.1 percent; with Napa sixth at 3.9 percent; Mendocino 20th at 5.2 percent and Lake 32nd at 6.7 percent.