San Diego’s Data Bites: March 2021 Pt. 2


In case you missed it, EDC has launched a fresh take on our long-standing Economic Pulse. Welcome to the second edition of San Diego’s Data Bites!

Each month the California Employment Development Department (EDD) releases employment data for the prior month. This edition of San Diego’s Data Bites covers February 2021 and reflects the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the region’s labor market. Check out EDC’s Research Bureau for more data and stats about San Diego’s economy.

Key Takeaways

  1. San Diego employers added back 31,900 jobs in February, undoing the lion’s share of January’s loss of 37,900 payroll positions.
  1. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 percent from January’s 8.0 percent even as nearly 33,000 people joined or rejoined the labor force.
  1. February’s employment report is reason for cautious optimism that the economy has turned the corner, but there is still work to be done. Employment remains 8.7 percent below year-ago levels, the labor force is still 2.1 percent smaller than a year ago, and the outlook is wrought with uncertainty.

First glance

San Diego’s labor market bounced back in February, following two consecutive months of declines. San Diego employers added back 31,900 jobs, undoing the lion’s share of January’s loss of 37,900 payroll positions (revised from -38,600) and lowering the unemployment rate to 7.2 percent from January’s 8.0 percent (revised from 8.1 percent). Even better, the unemployment rate dropped as 32,900 people joined or rejoined the labor force—more on that below.

Industry view

Job gains were widespread across industries. Every sector except Wholesale Trade, Retail, and Healthcare and Social Assistance added jobs, and losses in those sectors were de minimis.

The volatile Leisure and Hospitality industry added 12,800 new jobs, following a loss of 11,500 in January. Business and Professional Services firms also added 6,800 jobs, while Construction and Other Services—which includes dry cleaners, laundromats, and other personal services—each gained 4,100 positions.

Gains in Business and Professional Services were led by Administrative and Support Services, which added 4,900 new positions. This subsegment also includes temporary staff, and growth in this field can sometimes be a positive bellwether for future gains as those temporary staff members are hired on permanently.

Nonetheless, it’s important to keep last month’s positive report in perspective. Employment in every industry, except Construction and Utilities, remains below year-ago levels. For example, despite last month’s push, Leisure and Hospitality employment still rests some 33.4 percent below its February 2020 level, and Other Services employment is still 22.9 percent lower than it was a year ago.

San Diego workers flock back to the workforce

Perhaps the most encouraging piece from February’s employment report is the surge in the labor force. Labor force participation among women and minorities has plummeted across the country since the pandemic ensued; and while EDD doesn’t report labor force statistics across demographic groups like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does, it can be safely assumed that a similar dynamic has played out locally. As such, the return of these workers is a welcome sign, if sustained, because it will help to mitigate the cumulative effects of income losses among those most vulnerable groups.

Again, however, it is important to keep this all in perspective; San Diego’s labor force is still 2.1 percent smaller than it was in February 2020, and this has masked the true extent of the remaining weakness in the job market. This is because people who leave the labor force are no longer counted as unemployed by EDD and the BLS. If there were as many people in the labor force in February 2021 as there were a year earlier, the unemployment rate would still be perched at 9.4 percent, more than two percentage points higher than the officially reported 7.2 percent last month.

Wrapping it up

In sum, the February employment report suggests the regional economy may be turning the corner after a couple of disappointing employment reports in December and January. To be sure, COVID-19 cases have declined steadily in San Diego County in recent weeks, and the strong drive to get vaccine shots into people’s arms is most likely reassuring companies that the end of the pandemic is finally within striking distance. If so, then we can expect job gains to continue in coming months.

Nonetheless, the outlook is wrought with uncertainty. It remains unclear whether current vaccines will be effective in protecting against new variants of COVID-19. If not, then a future spike in coronavirus cases could force additional closures and restrictions, thereby hamstringing the recovery. In addition, the pandemic has led to wholesale shifts in how companies do business. Consequently, not every company will need to replace all of the workers that were let go, and thousands of the jobs lost over the past year may never return. Moreover, many businesses forced to shut down over the past year may not reopen, meaning that the weight of the jobs recovery will rest on fewer companies, which could push the timeline for a full recovery further into the future.

All of this is to say, we should be cautiously optimistic. On balance, the prognosis is good that San Diego will enjoy a relatively strong recovery this year and into 2022, but there is still much work to be done. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we get this recovery right.

Training and upskilling will be vital for the thousands of workers whose jobs may never return. EDC’s Advancing San Diego program is working to do just that.

It will also be imperative that San Diego small businesses are connected to large buyers in order to keep remaining businesses in the region healthy and to help spur a new wave of entrepreneurship to meet the needs of San Diego’s largest institutions and employers. EDC’s Anchor Collaborative is working with large local businesses to help ensure big companies “shop local” for their procurement needs. Our research estimates that a one percent shift in procurement spending by large companies to local businesses could create thousands of new jobs in the region.

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