The unemployment rate in Sonoma County held steady in December at 7.7 percent, a sign that the local economy is continuing its slow climb to recovery.
New figures released Friday show the county lost 1,900 jobs from November to December, but a drop in overall jobs is typical this time of year as seasonal forces drive down employment, economists said.
Instead, they focused on the steady growth in jobs over the past year. There were 8,100 more jobs in the county than a year ago, marking the eighth straight month of year-over-year job gains, the state Employment Development Department reported on Friday.
"We're making steady progress," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "Everyone knew the recovery would be slow, because all the problems we've had are deep. But we're digging ourselves out."
The manufacturing sector lost the most positions from November to December, dropping 400 jobs as wineries wound down their post-harvest production. Agricultural employers, primarily vineyards, shed an additional 300 jobs during the month. Construction companies also dropped 300 jobs as projects slowed over winter.
Despite the seasonal decline, the jobs report shows the local economy is continuing to improve.
Nearly every sector of the local economy has added jobs over the past 12 months, with agriculture the only exception.
Manufacturing companies added 1,400 jobs in the past year, including 300 in computers and electronics, which tend to provide high wages and benefits. Hotels and restaurants added 1,100 jobs, while retailers added 900 jobs. Even the county's battered construction sector, where four out of 10 workers lost their jobs from 2006 to 2011, is growing again, adding 800 jobs in the past year.
Staffing agencies have been busy sending candidates to wineries and manufacturing facilities, but often for temporary roles, said Nicole Smartt, vice president and co-owner of Star Staffing. Some employers are hiring temporary workers to fill in the gaps when permanent workers get the flu, she said.
"We are getting a lot of project-based assignments," Smartt said. "People are still skeptical about hiring full-time permanently."
Looking ahead, some local executives are feeling optimistic about the business climate. Half of those surveyed recently by the Economic Development Board are planning to hire more workers this year, Stone said.
"We're seeing a thawing of the unemployment right now," Stone said. "The economy's warming up, and things are looking better for spring."
Employers will likely need more workers in accounting, finance and information technology in the coming year, Smartt said.
In the last week, the highest number of job listings received at Sonoma County Job Link were in the financial and banking positions, said Sherry Alderman, interim employment and training director. Customer service and sales openings also were popular listings.
Marin County once again had the lowest jobless rate in the state, at 5.5 percent. Unemployment stood at 7.9 percent in Napa County, 9.5 percent in Mendocino and 15.1 percent in Lake.
In Sonoma County, Monte Rio had the highest unemployment rate at 16.6 percent, and Guerneville had the second-highest rate at 14.9 percent.
Sebastopol enjoyed the lowest rate in the county, with 4.9 percent unemployment, and Glen Ellen was close behind with 5 percent.
Unemployment held steady in December in both California and the overall United States, at 9.8 percent and 7.8 percent respectively.
Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees
Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.
The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.
There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.