The Mahoning Valley’s unemployment rate improved slightly in December, as the local labor force dropped from the same time a year ago.
According to estimates released Monday by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, the Valley’s unemployment rate ticked down to 7.4 percent last month, compared with 7.6 percent in December 2012. The number of unemployed dropped 500 to 9,400.
The Valley’s workforce — those working or seeking work in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties — decreased by 2,000 from December 2012 to December 2013. In the same period, the number of people employed fell by 800.
Mahoning County was the only area to see an uptick in the jobless rate. The unemployment rate here rose from 7.3 percent in December 2012 to 7.6 last month, and the county lost 400 jobs and added 300 people to its unemployment tally, which now sits at 8,400.
The jobless rates in Columbiana and Trumbull counties both improved in year-over-year comparisons.
Columbiana County’s rate decreased from 7.5 percent the previous year to 7.1 percent last month. Trumbull County posted a 0.5 percentage point improvement, coming in at 7.5 percent last month.
Both Columbiana and Trumbull counties employed 100 and 300 fewer workers, respectively.
“We’re seeing the unemployment rate go down because you have fewer people in the workforce, total,” said Tod Porter, a professor of economics at Youngstown State University.
“It’s not the way we want to see the unemployment rate go down,” he said.
The results were on par with national data for December. While the country’s unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent last month, the civilian labor force dropped by a sharp 347,000 workers in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Likely driving the workforce reductions were large numbers of long-term unemployed workers who gave up trying to find a job after months of looking, Porter said.
Ohio has been slow to regain the jobs it lost in the recession, with job growth now trailing the national average for 18 consecutive months, said George Zeller, a Cleveland-based economist.
“We are growing. That’s the good news, but the growth rate is way too slow,” and it only slowed down in December, Zeller said.
Compounding the problem, Zeller said, the long-term unemployed in Ohio have not received federal unemployment benefits beyond the 26 weeks covered by the state, since the extended benefits expired Dec. 28.
That could have one of two effects on the unemployment situation, Porter said. Over time, it could make people more aggressive in trying to find jobs, even those they consider to be less desirable, or it could cause more unemployed workers to stop looking altogether.
Of course, the trend could change if job growth picks up over the next few months, but Porter didn’t see any major changes in the future, as the Valley and the state continue “treading water” in terms of job growth.
Over the year 2013, Ohio created jobs at a rate of only 0.5 percent, compared with the national average of 1.6 percent, according to the research institute Policy Matters Ohio.
“We are on a job-growth seesaw, producing weak growth,” the group said in a statement. “It’s not the upward trajectory that Ohio workers so desperately need.”