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Western U.S. leading rebound thanks to housing, software jobs

  • Article by: STEVE MATTHEWS, AKI ITO and AMANDA CRAWFORD Bloomberg News
  • December 31, 2012 - 8:03 PM

Robert Thomson got a 20 percent raise after starting last month at Richmond American Homes in Salt Lake City, eight months after landing a job at another builder. A year ago, he was unemployed.

"I feel much better than I did," said Thomson, 33. "There's a lot of construction, just a lot of things going on."

Hiring by homebuilders and software and mobile application developers is helping the western third of the United States lead the nation in employment growth, according to Moody's Analytics Inc. and IHS Global Insight Inc. That's a contrast for the region, which has had the highest unemployment rates after the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2006, with prices plunging in Las Vegas, southern California and Arizona.

Nevada's unemployment fell 2.4 percentage points in the year ended November 2012, the most of any state, to 10.8 percent, but it's still the highest in the United States, according to the Labor Department. Joblessness in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Idaho are all down by at least 1 percentage point in the same period.

The national unemployment rate held at a four-year low of 7.7 percent in December, according to the median projection in a Bloomberg survey before the Labor Department's Jan. 4 figures. Employers added positions at about the same pace as in the prior month, showing the job market held up as lawmakers searched for a solution to break the fiscal impasse.

Among metropolitan areas with employment of 1 million or more workers, those in the West led in job growth in the 12 months through November, said Lee McPheters, research professor and director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe. Houston topped the list followed by Phoenix, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco.

"We view the West as the nation's most dynamic growth region," McPheters said in an e-mail. In 2013, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Washington, Colorado and California will be the strongest in the region in job growth and in the top 10 nationally, he said. Over the next five years, Texas and California will add more than 1 million jobs each, more than any other state, he said.

Other assessments buttress the strengthening outlook for the region. "The West has been outpacing the rest of the U.S.," said Eduardo Martinez, senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa. "... We are seeing signs of housing prices and permit issuance swing from neutral to positive."

Employment in the 13 most-western states, including Alaska and Hawaii and excluding Texas, is expected to rise 1.8 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014, according to IHS Global Insight. That's fastest among U.S. regions both years. Moody's Analytics also said the area has the most favorable job outlook, and forecasts gains of 3 percent annually by 2015.

Homebuilders are both benefiting from and helping to fuel the employment increases. Revenue doubled to $167.7 million in its five-state western region for the three months ending in October, Horsham, Pa.-based Toll Brothers said on Dec. 4. The four-state western market for Atlanta-based Beazer Homes rose 58 percent to $141.1 million in the quarter ended Sept. 30 from the same period in 2011.

The housing snapback has bolstered Arizona's job market. The Phoenix area added 50,700 jobs in the year ended November, almost 11 percent in construction, according to the Labor Department.

Las Vegas is becoming an emerging market for e-commerce with the relocation of shoe and apparel site Zappos Inc. and its 1,400 employees downtown from the suburbs. Tony Hsieh, founder of the company, now a division of Amazon.com Inc., is investing $50 million in downtown-based technology start-ups.

The city had the second-highest growth in high-technology jobs in 2011 behind San Francisco, with much of that in e-commerce, according to a report by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a commercial real estate broker based in Chicago. The report also cited Phoenix, Los Angeles and Orange County as emerging markets for high-tech jobs in the West.

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