PHOENIX — Arizona’s jobless rate jumped three-tenths of a point last month to 8.3 percent and now is a full percentage point higher than the national figure.
But the state economist who reports the figures, Aruna Murthy, said it’s not time to panic. “It’s one number,” she said. “And it’s a ratio of two things.”
Specifically, the state does a monthly survey of 1,000 households to find out who is employed and whether those not working are looking for jobs. Put simply, the math in this case found an increase in those who want work and a drop in those actually working.
But Murthy said the unemployment rate shows only part of the picture.
“I would look at it in conjunction with other numbers,” she said. “Is it telling me something we should truly be concerned about?”
One of those numbers, she said, is how many Arizonans are applying for unemployment benefits. And Murthy said that figure has remained relatively stable.
She considers that to be a good indicator, calling it a “real world” figure.
“You can’t go hungry,” Murthy said. “You’re going to file a claim.”
Murthy acknowledged that the gap between the state and federal jobless rates has increased now for several months. And that bears watching.
“I would say that things are not improving a whole lot,” Murthy said.
Another set of numbers Murthy is watching comes from a separate monthly survey of employers, which shows that jobs are being added in most sectors of the economy.
But there were some key exceptions.
Manufacturing not only shed 1,800 workers between July and August but its employment remains 1,200 below where it was a year earlier.
There also were month-over-month losses in construction. That’s not unusual for this time of year.
On the other side of the equation, the state’s retailers added 2,400 workers in August, boosting total retail employment by 5,900 since last year. Murthy said a lot of this can be tied to back-to-school purchases.
Health-care employment, never hit by the recession, continues to increase.
And there also are more jobs at bars and restaurants.
Murthy said these jobs tend to be toward the bottom of the pay scale. But strictly speaking, jobs are jobs, she added. “It has kept a lot of people employed,” she said.
One ongoing issue is the effects in Arizona of what’s going on in Washington.
Murthy said many of the losses in manufacturing can be linked to sequestration, the automatic cuts in federal spending that kicked in when the president and Congress could not agree on any other method of trying to bring the budget into balance. She said that means fewer federal contracts, directly impacting things such as the manufacturing of aircraft and parts.
Some congressional Republicans are calling for the sequestration cuts to be locked in — or at least kept in place for the time being — as part of any deal to keep government operating.
But Murthy said the good news for Arizona is that manufacturing makes up only a small percentage of the total state economy, about 6 percent of all jobs.
Less clear is what happens if there is no deal on the federal budget and there is a government shutdown. Murthy said the effects on the Arizona economy will depend on how long that lasts.