In a news release issued last week, Gov. Doug Ducey’s office touted data showing that Arizona’s “booming” job growth ranked third in the nation in 2019.
The data it cited came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported that Arizona added 80,800 jobs between December 2018 and December 2019 – a 2.8-percent rate of increase.
According to estimates issued by the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity, job growth was especially booming last year in Santa Cruz County, which typically has Arizona’s second- or third-highest unemployment rate.
One set of data included in a recent report showed 1,040 more people employed here in December 2019 than in December 2018 – a year-over-year job growth rate of 5.8 percent. Another data set showed the county gaining 550 non-farm jobs – an increase of 4.1 percent.
If either figure is correct, the local jobs-added rate far outstripped that of Arizona as a whole, not to mention Utah, the U.S. state with the nation’s greatest December-over-December job growth in 2019 at 3.1 percent.
But is the data reliable?
According to a spokesman for the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity, the second set of data in the agency’s reports – the one estimating 550 additional jobs and 4.1-percent growth in Santa Cruz County – is more accurate, since it’s based on a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics program known by the acronym CES that compiles data from businesses to calculate employment and wage statistics.
The other data set, which showed greater job gains, is from a different BLS program that relies on household surveys and is primarily used to calculate unemployment figures.
As for where exactly the new non-farm jobs reflected in the CES estimates came from, “we are not able to dive into the details of the estimation given the relatively small reporting sample of our business survey in Santa Cruz,” the spokesman wrote in an email, adding that: “Because this is a survey, estimates tend to fluctuate from month to month, especially in counties with smaller employment levels.”
Representatives at the Arizona@Work office in Nogales declined to comment for this story, but local business leaders identified several likely sources of new employment – namely the U.S. Census, as well as the hospitality and service sectors and the warehouses serving cross-border commerce.
However, many of those jobs are part-time, temporary and/or seasonal positions that don’t deliver the same impact as permanent, full-time, benefits-eligible jobs like those being added in other parts of the state.
“A reason why we’re seeing larger numbers is because the U.S. Census is already employing a lot of people,” said Olivia Ainza-Kramer, president of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, who pointed to a recent report showing that Yuma and Santa Cruz counties are where the Census is best meeting its hiring goals in anticipation of the 2020 population count.
Ainza-Kramer said that as of last October, the Census had hired approximately 600 people to work in Santa Cruz County. That’s a significant figure in a county where the average number of people working in non-farm employment in 2019 was 13,150.
The Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity spokesman confirmed that Census jobs are included in the agency’s CES employment surveys.
“That made a lot of difference,” Ainza-Kramer said of the Census hiring in Santa Cruz County. “It made a difference in the numbers.”
She also pointed to strong tourism numbers, and said the out-of-town visitors have benefited private-sector employers such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations. And she cited part-time, holiday-season hiring in the local retail sector as a potential source of end-of-year gain jobs.
Produce importers are another major source of private-sector employment in Santa Cruz County, and Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said he was not surprised to see numbers reflecting local job growth.
“Anecdotally, people have told me it is getting harder to hire employees due to less workers being available,” he wrote in an email. “New warehouse and other construction seems fairly healthy, which must be helping.”
Another indicator that might suggest new jobs being added in the produce sector is that summertime unemployment figures are up.
Summer is the offseason for Mexican produce imports, resulting in seasonal layoffs at the area’s warehouses, and Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity reports showed a yearly peak in local unemployment claims in August 2019, when 2,420 people reported seeking unemployment benefits. That was up from 2,213 the previous August, which was also the peak unemployment month of 2018.
The number of unemployment claims reported in May, June and July were also higher in 2019 than in 2018.
However, while the state reports showed more people unemployed last summer than the summer before, unemployment rates were essentially unchanged – ranging from six-plus percent in May to 12 percent in August – reflecting a growing workforce as well.
A 2018 study commissioned by Arizona Mining projected that the Hermosa Project in the Patagonia Mountains would eventually employ an average of 451 workers, with a peak employment of 525 people. South32, the company that purchased the Hermosa Project that same year, did not respond by press time to a query as to whether it had added any new jobs in 2019.
Ainza-Kramer said she expects U.S. Census hiring to continue to fuel the local jobs market in the short term. “There’s another wave that is coming during this month and next month,” she said.
That hiring is likely to continue to skew employment figures in Santa Cruz County as well as at the state and national levels – a reality noted in a Bloomberg News story published last fall, headlined “Census hires could make U.S. jobs report less than meets the eye,” which reported that the Census plans to hire 500,000 canvassers in 2020 on top of its hiring goal of 40,000 for 2019.
In addition to their temporary nature, the Census jobs are often part-time, offering 20-30 hours a week with an hourly pay rate of $16 for census-taker positions in Santa Cruz County.
Once those positions dry up, Ainza-Kramer said, she’s hoping that the people filling them will be able to find new jobs created by upcoming projects such as the $134-million overhaul of State Route 189 in Nogales.
“At the Chamber of Commerce, we’re seeing that this year is going to be a positive year for employment because of the different projects that we have,” she said.
Another pending development that could affect Santa Cruz County’s employment numbers – though not its real-world jobs picture – is the annual benchmark revision that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts on recent employment statistics.
“During this process, employment estimates generated from the CES business survey are benchmarked to a larger, more robust data program known as the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages,” the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity spokesman said, adding that those benchmark revisions are set to be published on March 12.