The Mahoning Valley’s unemployment rate fell more than a full percentage point to 7.9 percent in February compared with February 2013, but it continued to lag behind what one economist said were shaky state numbers.
But others said the state and local figures signaled a pending improvement in the economy after a slow winter of hiring.
The number of jobless across Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties fell from 23,700 in February 2013 to 20,300 last month, according to data released Tuesday by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.
In the only negative movement evident in Tuesday’s data, the Valley saw a loss of 2,000 from its civilian labor force, bringing the total number of Valley residents working or seeking work to 257,000. That drop was not thought to have a significant impact on unemployment, however.
Mahoning County’s unemployment rate improved to 7.9 percent last month, compared with 9.1 percent a year ago. Trumbull County’s jobless rate was down to 7.9 percent from 9.2 percent the year before, and Columbiana County improved to 7.8 percent last month from 9.2 percent a year ago.
The Valley’s unemployment rate still registered much higher than the state’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate for February. Ohio’s rate last month ticked down to 6.5 percent, down from 6.9 percent in January and 7.3 percent in February of last year.
That was Ohio’s lowest rate since June 2008, when the effects of the Great Recession began.
But Cleveland-based economist George Zeller questioned the state figures, saying the numbers didn’t add up.
The state reported a loss of 4,600 jobs in February. Meanwhile, ODJFS reported that Ohio gained 20,000 employed workers while also trimming the number of unemployed by 18,000. That would be good for a net gain of 38,000 employed, Zeller said.
“How can you have that improvement of 38,000 workers when you lost 4,600 jobs?” he asked. Zeller’s answer: “You can’t.”
“If the state’s figure is incorrect, how do we know the local figure is correct?” Zeller added. “We don’t.”
Benjamin Johnson, ODJFS spokesman, said the figures were the result of two surveys. One is a payroll survey of employers, and the other is a telephone survey of households.
Although the household survey showed an increase of 2,000 jobs, the payroll survey reflected the volatility of hiring seen in jobs reports in recent months.
But revisions of the recent unemployment data smoothed out some of that fluctuation, showing a “more consistently declining unemployment rate” than initially thought, Johnson said.
Still, Zeller said major drops in county unemployment last month indicated a “consistent pattern” of optimism as the Valley and the state continues to slowly recover from the recession.
George Mokrzan, director of economics at Huntington National Bank, said a frigid winter checked the progress of the manufacturing and construction sectors, possibly masking the strength of the economic rebound.
He said recovery was slowed in the past year by fiscal uncertainty, caused by fiscal battles and a government shutdown.
But strengthening markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan bode well for increased stability and growth this year.
“I would expect to see a relatively solid rebound,” Mokrzan said. “I think it should be a good year this year.”