New numbers released on unemployment and job growth dispel the widely held perception that Los Angeles continues to lag other major U.S. metropolitan areas.

The 78,000 jobs created in L.A. County over the past year far surpasses the number created in any other major U.S. metro area.

L.A.’s 2.0 percent rate of job growth surpasses many areas; it’s more than twice that of New York and one-third greater than Chicago.

Even L.A.’s unemployment rate for April of 7.3 percent, while still above the national and state levels, is steadily moving downward.

The 7.3 percent preliminary figure compares with 8.4 percent in April 1996.

“In terms of job growth, L.A. County is doing well, if not better, than other large urban areas,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.

Goetz Wolff, professor of urban planning at UCLA, said the entertainment industry’s robust health is drawing large numbers of job-seekers to L.A., which, ironically, causes unemployment to fall slower than it otherwise would.

Despite the mostly encouraging numbers, L.A.’s economy continues to have trouble shaking its laggard image on the national stage. That image, say experts, is partly due to the stigma of being known as the land of earthquakes and civil unrest.

“Los Angeles, of course, experienced a lot of negative stuff. I think that painted a very bad picture in a lot of places,” said Richard Holden, chief economist with the state’s Employment Development Department. But Holden said that “a 2-percent job growth is pretty good.”

Economists were split on the specifics behind the numbers. While jobs are increasing at a steady pace, some believe that L.A. continues to lag in high-paying jobs.

During the recession, Los Angeles County lost over 350,000 jobs, primarily in relatively high-paying aerospace. That is more than Detroit’s entire labor force. How many of those L.A. jobs have come back and at what salary point has been a matter of debate.

Employment in motion pictures, computers and data processing is on the rise, with 16,000 new jobs this year. Those positions tend to pay well, with salaries often more than $50,000.

The manufacturing sector has generated more than 20,000 new jobs in the past year. Especially robust has been the apparel industry.

“I think you could say L.A. is gradually coming back,” said Wolff. “The most powerful point is in the area of manufacturing, which picked up significant growth in the past year.”

Trucking and wholesale trade jobs are also up another sign of a growing economy. More goods transported equals increased manufacturing.

“If you look around, L.A. County has been getting thousands of jobs in apparel, hotels, and motion pictures,” said Tom Lieser, associate director of UCLA-Anderson’s Business Forecast Project. “We’re definitely growing at a comparable rate to the nation.”

Strong port activity and a jump in construction industry employment, mostly non-residential, is also encouraging, experts said.

Meanwhile, Manpower Inc., one of the nation’s largest personnel firms, reports this week that 28 percent of Los Angeles companies plan to increase their labor force this summer.

The San Fernando Valley workforce is also on an upswing. Of the surveyed companies in the area, 22 percent said they planned to add additional employees, compared to three months ago when only 7 percent planned to create more jobs.

While Los Angeles’ growth is stronger than other areas of the country, it is not as robust as many other areas of California.

Overall, California has added more than 400,000 jobs in the past year, more than at any time since 1988, and its unemployment rate of 6.6 percent is the lowest in more than seven years.

Orange County’s jobless rate is just 3.1 percent; Riverside’s and San Bernardino’s rates are each 6.5 percent; and San Diego’s is 6.4 percent.

Northern California’s economy is rapidly growing, fueled largely by Silicon Valley’s high-tech boom. And the unusually strong economic performances being turned in by other California areas may be another reason L.A.’s growth has gone relatively unheralded.

San Francisco’s economy continues to hum along with a combination of low unemployment and strong job growth.

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