Austin unemployment rate stable in February; companies are looking to hire

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The buoyant local labor market shows no signs of slowing, despite rising gas prices and other potential economic headwinds.

The unemployment rate in the Austin metro area stood at 3.3% in February, unchanged from January and indicative of an environment in which businesses are struggling to hire and retain enough workers to meet booming demand and economists said most people who want a job probably have one.

“Most employers I interact with, their biggest concern is that they can’t find enough people to do the job – they need more people,” said Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics, based in Austin. “Austin’s (jobs) market is exceptionally strong right now” for job seekers.

Still, the local unemployment rate remains slightly elevated from the 2.9% level it hit in December – marking the only time it has slipped below 3% in the pandemic era.

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But Austin’s workforce has grown by several thousand people since December amid huge demand for local workers and a continued influx of new businesses and residents into the area.

Total employment in the Austin metro area, which includes Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, hit a record last month of just over 1.3 million workers, figures show. from the Texas Workforce Commission that have not been adjusted. for seasonal factors.

A 3.3% unemployment rate is “really, really low,” said Jon Hockenyos, president of Austin-based economic analyst firm TXP Inc.. It’s “probably (composed of) people who for some reason aren’t really serious about work, or it’s people who say, ‘Well, I could take this job, but I’m just holding on for more. silver.” “

The unemployment rate in the Austin area, which stood at 5.1% in February 2021, has fallen significantly since climbing to 11.8% in April 2020, when the shock of the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy statewide and nationwide for the first time and triggered a large number of job cuts. . In the year before the pandemic, it generally fluctuated within a range of around 2.5% to 3%.

Statewide, the unemployment rate for all of Texas was 4.7% last month, according to unadjusted labor commission figures, down from 4.8% in January and 6.8% in February last year.

Austin-area job growth was led last month by the region’s acclaimed leisure and hospitality industry, a big boost for a sector that has been hit hard by the pandemic. and has had a much harder time recovering than other areas of the local economy, such as high-tech companies.

Local hospitality-related businesses, including hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, hired 4,600 workers from January to February, bringing total regional employment in the sector to around 131,000. The sector has now added around 25,000 jobs over the past 12 months and is a striking distance from its pre-pandemic employment level of around 134,000.

Economists said the trend signals growing confidence among many people that the coronavirus pandemic is under control. Hiring ahead of the South by Southwest festival earlier this month — which took place live for the first time in the pandemic era and brought thousands of attendees to downtown Austin — also aid.

SXSW “contributes to that,” Hockenyos said. But “people are dying to go out (in general), and the leisure and hospitality sector is doing its best to staff up to meet that demand.”

Most other sectors of the local economy also added jobs from January to February. For example, local jobs in professional and business services, which includes the region’s booming high-tech industry, added 1,400 in the one-month period and added 32,500 in the 12 months, putting employment in the sector around 40,000 above before. pandemic levels.

The overall economic boom in the Austin area has been driven by a flood of business expansions and relocations to the area – including projects by big companies such as Tesla, Apple, Samsung and Oracle – which have pursued relentlessly throughout the pandemic.

It’s one of the reasons economists aren’t predicting a near-term local slowdown, despite issues like rising gas prices, as well as general inflation and rising interest rates. interest.

“Whenever a company moves to Austin or Texas from another location, it brings high-paying jobs with great economic multipliers, and it usually brings a lot of money” to expand its operations, Schenker said.

He also said that rising gas prices are something of a wash for Texas as a whole, as the state’s large oil and gas industry stands to benefit even as other businesses and consumers across the country stand to benefit. pay more at the pump.

As for Austin, “we’re a big tech hub with a big remote work culture,” Schenker said. “A lot of people are working remotely and you’re not spending money on fuel you don’t need.”

Hockenyos said the local economy may cool down a bit next fall or winter. But he doesn’t foresee that happening, and he said it would likely only happen as a byproduct of a greater decline in state and national economies.

“I would say that none (of the potential economic headwinds) will materially impact the Austin area in the near term,” Hockenyos said. “Even the higher gas prices – they’re not particularly high relative to income” in the region.

About James Almanza

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