Humboldt County’s unemployment trend over the past year. | Graph courtesy California Employment Development Division.

Randy Weaver, a labor market consultant from the Eureka office of California’s Employment Development Department, sounded extra chipper in the email he sent out this morning:

Happy Friday!

I pleased to announce that Humboldt County’s preliminary unemployment rate for May 2017 is 3.6 percent, continuing the recent trend of historically low unemployment for the county. Looking back to 1990 in the historical labor force and employment data, I can find no time in that period in which the county experienced an unemployment rate as low as this month’s rate. 

Weaver did add a caveat: This low, low rate should be considered preliminary at this point. It may be adjusted up or down based on late-reported data. But still, this is a good trend.

Or is it?

Reached by phone this afternoon, Weaver said low unemployment is in some ways “a double-edged sword.” It’s good news for job-seekers, not so good for employers looking to hire new workers.

Of course, many factors can affect these numbers, including the size of the labor force (which, of course, is affected by our region’s illicit agricultural industry). In May Humboldt County’s labor force stood at 62,590, according to the state’s figures. That’s about five percent lower than it was five years ago.

Weaver pointed out that five years ago we were still coming out of the recession, and the labor pool tends to grow following recessions as spouses enter the workforce, investment returns dwindle and people generally need more income. Still, the trend in Humboldt and across far-northern California is toward a smaller workforce. Baby Boomers are retiring and Millennials aren’t entering the workforce like previous generations did.

“It’s a little bit of a mystery where some of them are,” Weaver said of this younger generation. Many have noted that Millennials tend to have different attitudes toward work than earlier generations. “They’re very entrepreneurial,” Weaver said. Surveys have also shown that they’re more willing than older generations to take a lesser-paying job if it aligns with their values, and they tend to prioritize a work/life balance.

Regarding weed, Weaver said he hears from a lot of employers who complain about competing with the cannabis industry for workers. He suspects that legalization will change the dynamic to some extent, making it less likely for people to earn $20 or $25 per hour, tax-free, trimming buds. On the other hand, he’s seeing the types of jobs available in the industry expand to include more white-collar gigs such as brand ambassadors. 

As for the skepticism that often greets unemployment numbers, Weaver said there are misconceptions about what the figures actually represent. The rate he reports is based on surveys and a simple calculation: the number of unemployed people divided by the number of workers in the workforce. 

He acknowledged that there are other ways to measure unemployment — the state has six — including methods that factor in discouraged and marginalized workers. But those data are only measured at the state level and not available for Humboldt County, Weaver said. 

Our May unemployment rate is down 0.6 percent from a year earlier, and it places Humboldt County 12th from the top (lowest) among the state’s 58 counties. It’s also below both the state and national unemployment rates, which stand at 4.2 and 4.1 respectively.

For more info click here to download the Employment Development Department’s Humboldt County Employment Snapshot for May 2017.