‘This is a cycle and not a bubble’; State economist discusses Washington County unemployment rates

ST. GEORGE — It’s no secret that Washington County – and Utah in general – has experienced significant growth in recent years.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Beehive State’s population, as a percentage, grew more during the past decade than any other state in the nation. Washington County grew by more than 30% during that time period.

Coupled with that growth has been a boon to the local job market. Currently, unemployment in Washington County stands at 2.4%, the lowest it’s been since 2007. This figure is considered to be extremely low by economists.

Lecia Langston, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, provided an update on job growth during this year’s Economic Summit in St. George on Thursday.

What the data indicates is that for 2020 the job market in Washington County will be flat or declining in some sectors such as in mining. One sector that experienced a substantial slowdown was in professional and business services such as temp agencies, Langston said, and flat growth occurred in retail trade.

Lecia Langston, senior economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services broke down the data of the area’s job market to attendees at Thursday’s 2020 Economic Summit at the Dixie Convention Center. St. George, Utah, Jan. 9, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“The good news is this is a cycle and not a bubble,” she said. “We don’t want to go through that again.”

Though some sectors declined, the star for job growth during the past three quarters was health care services.

“The best indicator of the current economic cycle is the year-to-year changes in overall jobs,” Langston said. “Right now we are running at 3% job growth during the last three quarters, but last year we were running closer to 7%, with our average at about 5% percent.”

Although some cities would love to have 3% job growth, Langston added, there has been”significant” slowing during 2019.

“Even though our job growth is slowing … I think at 7% it was overheated,” she said. “The last time growth was this low for an extended period was when we were coming out of the (Great) Recession, and the time before that was when we were going into the recession.”

Not to spread fear, and not to suggest job growth will remain low or the country will experience another recession, Langston’s address to the 2020 Economic Summit attendees was a cautionary tale.

“If you are going to watch the data during the past decade, you are going to want to watch the data this year,” she said. “It’s time to watch the numbers.”

Along with professional and business services that can be a bellwether indicator for job growth in other industries, construction in Washington County plays a big role in the overall mix.

“You have people live here, and then they need homes, stores to shop in, churches to go to and schools to send their children to attend,” Langston said. “In the last few months, residential construction has picked up, but before that, it was down 14% during September and October.”

Langston anticipates that construction jobs will continue to increase.

“Growth in Washington County is slowing,” she added. “It’s not terrible, but it’s slower than we have experienced since we came out of the recession.”

St. George City Council members Michele Randall (left in black blazer), Gregg McArthur (center) and Jimmie Hughes (right) mingle with other attendees at this year’s economic summit, St. George, Utah, Jan. 9, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

One data source economists use to analyze jobs is evaluating what motivates people to move into an area.

Through the Census Bureau, economists are able to track various activities such as employment changes, what industry someone worked in and their wages.

“Why are people moving here?” Langston asked. “They are moving here for probably the same reason other people came. It’s about quality of life.”

The data indicates that people looking for work move into Washington County from Salt Lake City, Ogden, rural areas of the state and Las Vegas, Nevada. The largest age group to move into Southern Utah is between 24 and 35 years old.

“Interesting we are seeing a smaller share of under 18 and a bigger share of over 65,” Langston said.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike also attended Thursday’s summit and said that while it seems like he’s never able to make it to all the presentations and updates on economic projects, there is always a tremendous amount of useful information.

“I always love hearing from Lecia Langston,” he said. “She is unvarnished and just lays it out with regards to employment data and jobs.”

Pike added that he agrees with Langston that 2020 will be a year to watch.

“There are some indicators that there is going to be a slowdown,” he said. “In our market … in things like building permits, we were almost identical in 2019 as we were in 2018. It will be interesting to see how things will go this year.”

Pike anticipates a flattening or continued reduction in some industries, but because of the growth in residential and commercial construction, overall he believes this year the city should be economically strong.

“We are certainly bullish on the future, and it’s an enviable position to be in.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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