L.A. County’s economy chugged along at nearly full employment in February as the unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent and employers added 33,000 jobs to their payrolls, state figures released Friday show.

The California Employment Development Department reported that the unemployment rate dropped from 4.9 percent in January to its lowest level in nearly 10 years. More people joined the labor force, which grew by 7,000 to 5,067,000, and even more people – 13,000 – reported they were working.

The county’s 4.8 percent rate was slightly better than the statewide average of 5 percent, but was just slightly above the 4.7 percent nationwide rate. The county’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and Long Beach, reported rates of 5.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.

With the unemployment rate so low, the market heavily favors people looking for new jobs. That has left employers scrambling to snag quality candidates before they move on to other offers.

“Candidates are staying on the market for a particular job for about a week before moving on to the next one,” said Brandi Britton, Los Angeles district president for Robert Half, a Menlo Park staffing firm. “But employers have not been able to move that quickly, so they are missing the chance to hire the early applicants.”

So far, Britton said, employers haven’t substantially raised their salary offers as compensation increases have remained in the 2 percent to 3 percent range.

Nonetheless, employers are hiring. Ten of the county’s 11 major industries added payroll jobs last month, bringing total nonfarm payrolls to nearly 4.4 million. Leading the way was private education, which added 12,000 jobs, followed by professional/business services with an increase of 5,900 jobs, and construction and entertainment, which each added about 5,000 jobs.

Many of these added jobs are the result of seasonal hires as employers strive to reach their payroll budgets for the year. When the EDD adjusts for this and other seasonal factors, the county actually saw a slight drop of 3,500 jobs in February.

The only sector to report losses was retail trade, which fell by 7,700 jobs. Part of the blame may lie with the weak apparel sector, which has been plagued by weak demand and bankruptcies of local chains such as American Apparel and Nasty Gal.

“We’re seeing struggling in the apparel sector as there are many fewer positions to fill there,” Britton said.

Over the past 12 months, the county added 70,000 payroll jobs for a growth rate of 1.6 percent, which is in line with the trend of recent months. The healthcare/social assistance sector led the way, adding 22,000 jobs, followed by accommodation/food services (up 12,500 jobs) and professional/business services (up 9,000).

The only sector losing jobs over the past 12 months was manufacturing, which shed 8,700 jobs – again, partly due to the weakness in the apparel sector.

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

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