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Unemployment in Sonoma County soared to 8.6 percent in January, a level not seen in more than a quarter century.

The county?s slowing economy has now shed 7,400 jobs over the past year, or 1 out of every 25 jobs in the county, the state Employment Development Department reported Thursday.

Nearly every sector of the Sonoma County economy contracted. Construction companies, retailers, financial services and employment firms reported the biggest losses.

The unemployment rate hasn?t been this high since June 1983, when Sonoma County?s jobless rate was 9.1 percent. Even those who track the local economy closely say they?ve been surprised by how rapidly the job market has deteriorated.

?I think it is stunning in its descent,? said Ben Stone, director of the county?s Economic Development Board. ?The recession keeps broadening and deepening.?

Never before on records dating back a quarter-century has unemployment climbed so sharply in one year. The jobless rate, which stood at 5.2 percent at the beginning of 2008, rose to 7.3 percent in December and continued upward in January, hitting 8.6 percent.

?We just stumbled on something pretty big,? said Devla Singh, an EDD labor analyst.

There were 184,400 jobs in Sonoma County in January, down from 191,800 a year ago. Overall, there were 22,600 unemployed job-seekers unable to find work in January, up from 13,600 a year ago.

The sharp jump in unemployment mirrored increases across the nation.

Unadjusted for seasonal factors, unemployment statewide rose to 10.6 percent in January, up from 6.4 percent a year earlier. Nationally, the jobless rate hit 8.5 percent in January, up from 5.4 percent a year earlier.

Despite the widening job losses, the labor market is still stronger in Sonoma County than most other parts of the state. Only eight of California?s 53 counties had lower unemployment in January. Neighboring Marin County continues to enjoy the state?s lowest jobless rate, at 6.6 percent.

The fact that Sonoma County?s rate remains below state and national figures is a reminder that the local economy is fairly diverse, said Karen Fies, who heads the county?s employment assistance center.

?If I saw Sonoma County above the California average, that?s when I?d really start to worry,? Fies said.

But the county?s relative economic diversity hasn?t been able to protect it against such a broad economic contraction. Even health care, an industry often thought of as immune from layoffs, is shedding workers, Fies said.

?It?s all across the board,? said Fies of the job weakness. ?We?re seeing people with limited English to people with master?s degrees.?

The biggest losses are in construction, which lost 1,800 jobs; retail, which shed 1,300 jobs; and financial and real estate, which saw 800 jobs disappear.

Most of these industries have been contracting for months and are therefore not much of a surprise. The housing bust and credit crunch have all had profound effects on these industries.

?Things that have been affected continue to be affected as the recession ripples through the economy,? Stone said.

But the recession is increasingly penetrating industries that have been more resilient in past downturns, Stone said.

Health care lost about 100 jobs between December and January, but compared to last year the jobs remained stable at 18,000.

Another previously strong industry that is starting to suffer is tourism. In the past, even as the U.S. economy has swooned, local tourism has remained strong thanks to foreign tourists visiting Wine Country. Not anymore.

?We?re seeing fewer foreign tourists because the recession has spread abroad now,? Stone said.

The leisure and hospitality industries shed 700 jobs over the year, while the non-durable goods category, which includes the wine industry, lost 300 jobs.

Only two sectors of the labor market expanded: agriculture, which added 800 jobs over the year, and government, which gained 100 jobs.

The county?s jobs program, Job Link, is seeing steady strong demand by job hunters, but not in line with the soaring unemployment rate. That tells Fies some people who lose their jobs aren?t looking for another one right away.

?I think that people don?t look for work immediately upon being laid off ? and they should, because it?s taking longer to find employment,? she said.

Many people who do start looking for jobs are finding that the way to go about it has changed, Fies said. Employers aren?t using traditional methods to advertise jobs, and networking is becoming more important, she said.

?We?re trying to teach people who haven?t looked for a job in 15, 10, 3 years that times have changed,? Fies said.

How long the downturn will last is anyone?s guess. The stimulus package could very well have an impact, but how big remains difficult to predict, Stone said.

?I think the consensus of economists is that by the end of this year or early next year unemployment should stabilize and the economy should begin turning around,? he said.

That puts the beginning of a real recovery off until at least 2011, and a return to 2005-like prosperity far off, he said.

?We?ve got a hard slog for a while I?d say,? Stone said.

In Mendocino County, the jobless rate rose to 10.8 percent in January, up from 7.3 percent a year earlier.

In Lake County, unemployment shot to 16 percent in January, up from 10.9 percent a year earlier.

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