Graph courtesy of the State of California Employment Development Department.

Humboldt County’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.2 percent in May. That’s more than a full percent lower than the same time last year. And not only is that mark lower than both the state and national unemployment rates; it’s lower than this county has seen since the 1980s, if not earlier.

The Eureka office of the California Employment Development Department only keeps computer data going back to 1990, and after checking those data at LoCO‘s request, Labor Market Consultant Randy Weaver said that over those 25-plus years local unemployment was never this low. The closest it got was 4.8 percent in October of 2000 and 4.9 percent in May 2006, right before the economic collapse.

“I think that in general this has been the trend for most of the coastal counties [in California],” Weaver said. “Most counties to the north and south of us have seen decreasing unemployment rates.” 

Weaver noted that the economic recovery from the Great Recession has been slow in the region. But Humboldt seems to be doing the best among our neighbors at the moment, with a slightly lower rate than Mendocino County (4.3 percent) and significantly lower than Trinity (5.9 percent), Del Norte (6.6 percent), Shasta (6.2 percent) and Siskiyou (6.9 percent) counties.

Among all of California’s 58 counties, Humboldt is ranked 13th from the top, meaning we have a lower unemployment rate than three quarters of the state.

OK, so that’s the gift horse. Now let’s look it in the mouth.

If we dig a little deeper into the number we find that the county’s labor force is shrinking, which can contribute to a lower rate. In May of 2015 our labor force stood at 63,300 (rounded to the nearest hundred). By this May it had dropped by 1,000 workers, to 62,300. Weaver said that’s “one of the largest falls in the labor force I’ve seen in a while.”

It’s hard to figure out the exact reason for this drop, Weaver said. Typical explanations for people leaving the workforce include retirement, going back to school or leaving the area.

Meanwhile, there are several different methods for measuring unemployment. The one used by the Employment Development Division, for its published figures, is based on people who are employed and people who have been actively seeking employment within the past four weeks. 

The whole region, including Humboldt and neighboring counties, has a relatively low labor force participation rate, compared to the state at large, according to Weaver. We tend to have a labor force participation rate around 46 or 47 percent, he said, while the state tends to average in the high fifties or low sixties.

There has been a lot of speculation about the reasons behind this. The obvious guess, of course, is weed. With an estimated 12,000 marijuana grows in Humboldt County alone, plenty of people are making a living without reporting it to the government. But Weaver also noted that our area has an older population, on average, than the rest of the state. It tends to get younger as you move south. 

And lastly, the unemployment rate doesn’t factor in the quality of employment. Part-time jobs count, and a job working at minimum wage counts the same as one that brings in six figures. Plenty of people in this area are underemployed, Weaver said.

Regardless, the lowest rate in 25 years remains good news. “Considering our isolation and some factors like that, we’re actually doing pretty well,” Weaver said.