L.A. County’s unemployment fell to a new record low of 4.4 percent in May amid steady job gains, state figures released Friday show.

The county’s unemployment rate dropped a notch from 4.5 percent in April as more county residents both entered the workforce and found jobs. Roughly 17,000 more residents reported they were working in May, bringing the total to 4.89 million. A year ago, the unemployment rate was 5.3 percent.

May’s unemployment rate was considerably lower than the statewide average of 4.7 percent, though it was a notch above the national average of 4.3 percent. The county’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and Long Beach, reported rates of 4.3 percent and 4.4 percent respectively.

Employers in the county added roughly 20,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, a turnaround from April when payroll employment fell by 7,000. Leading the way were job gains in leisure/hospitality (up 6,300), motion picture and sound recording (up 4,600) and professional/business services (up 4,500).

These robust figures show an economy that is at or near full-employment, with the bargaining power tipping more toward job seekers.

“We’re seeing employers now make their hiring decisions much more quickly as they are finally realizing that if they take too long, they lose out on the candidates they want,” said Brandi Britton, Los Angeles region district president with Robert Half International, a Menlo Park staffing firm.

The gains in the highly volatile entertainment sector were a turnaround from several recent months of drops, but payroll employment levels remain 7,000 below last May.

Britton said that she is seeing evidence of employers in the entertainment sector converting more of their workforces to contract workers receiving 1099 tax forms and to temporary workers to better accommodate rapid swings in projects and workloads. This is one reason, she said, why overall payroll employment levels in the industry remain weak.

The only sector reporting a significant drop in payroll jobs last month was retail trade, which fell by 1,800 jobs as major department stores continued with layoffs.

May’s strong payroll employment performance may be the last for a couple months; payroll employment levels are expected to weaken as K-12 schools and universities let out for the summer.

The closely watched year-over-year payroll employment picture showed a modest 55,000 gain in jobs for L.A. County, or 1.3 percent. A year or two ago, that year-over-year figure was consistently showing gains of nearly 2 percent; this slowdown would appear to be yet another indicator of an economy at or near full employment.

Public policy and energy reporter Howard Fine can be reached at hfine@labusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardafine.

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