As south-central Idaho’s overall unemployment rate dipped below pre-pandemic levels for the first time in September, Blaine County’s unemployment rate fell below 3%, according to a report released late last month by the Idaho Department of Labor.

Idaho’s south-central region, which encompasses Blaine, Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and four other counties, saw average unemployment rates fall from 2.9% in August to 2.5% in September, the report stated. The percentage of workers in Blaine County seeking employment followed a similar drop of 0.4 percentage points over the course of the month, from 3.1% to 2.7%.

In comparison, about 7.5% of the working-age population in Blaine County was unemployed in September 2020.

Between August and September 2021, the statewide unemployment rate remained unchanged at 2.9%, according to the Department of Labor, and the national unemployment rate fell from about 5.2% to 4.8%.

One factor behind the labor market improvement in south-central Idaho last month was an overall positive net change in employees, the department said. The southernmost counties in the region—Cassia, Jerome, Gooding, Minidoka, and Twin Falls—accounted for nearly 80% of employment growth.

“The number of employed workers in the regions grew by 0.5% (542), while the number of those currently seeking employment declined by 14% (420),” the department stated.

Meanwhile, Blaine County’s labor force declined from roughly 12,900 employees in August to 12,760 in September, making it the only county in the south-central region to experience labor force shrinkage.

According to Bonang Seoela, regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor, a reduction in the labor force typically results when people either retire, quit or get furloughed or fired and don’t continue to seek work.

“It is impossible to precisely say which of these forces was the greatest in the case of Blaine County or the entire region,” he said.

But statewide data show a significant increase in both voluntary (quits) and involuntary (layoffs or discharges) job separations between July and August.

“This rise [in job separations] could be one of the main driving factors behind the labor force decline in Blaine County,” Seoela said.

Of all counties in south-central Idaho, Cassia and Minidoka saw the most growth in their labor forces—increases of about 1.4% each—and recorded unemployment rates of 2.1% and 2.3%, respectively. Lincoln County recorded the highest unemployment rate in the region at 3.6%, above the statewide average but still under the national average.

Overall, the region added 542 jobs in September, representing more than a quarter of the state’s total job growth (2,000 new jobs). But the region’s number of job vacancies posted online “has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the year,” according to the Department of Labor report, and about 62% of vacancies in September had remained unfilled from the previous months.

“The number of vacancies per available worker has also continued to rise,” the department stated, adding that the sectors with the greatest hiring difficulties in south-central Idaho were in health care, social assistance, retail trade, and manufacturing.

“The degree of labor market tightness was about 90%, meaning that there is nearly one job opening for every job-seeker currently on the market,” the department stated. “The duration of job vacancies is increasing.”

Positions going unfilled could be attributed to several factors, the report said, and despite job growth in southern Idaho, the future of the labor market “remains uncertain.”

“The national recovery that began strongly earlier this year has slowed down. The economy has now shifted gears to new and refreshed challenges,” it said. “The ‘great resignation,’ rising housing costs, upward inflationary pressures, and persistent supply chain bottlenecks are some of the recent developments across the nation.” 

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