Aruna Murthy

Arizona economist Aruna Murthy [Ross D. Franklin/AP]

Ross D. Franklin/AP

The state's jobless rate dropped two-tenths of a point last month, but there are indications of problems remaining with the Arizona economy.

That 7.3 percent seasonally adjusted rate compares with a 6.7 percent nationwide figure, and the state added 17,300 jobs between January and February.

But Aruna Murthy, the director of economic analysis for the state Department of Administration, pointed out that means a year-over-year job growth of just 1.9 percent. And Murthy said that rate needs to pick up if the state is to achieve the nearly 2.4 percent increase in employment she predicted for this year just five months ago.

There are some bright spots.

The state's leisure and hospitality industry – everything from bars and restaurants to hotels – added a whopping 9,000 jobs in just the last month. That's not only higher than the typical 5,100 gain for February but also the highest one-month gain in more than two decades.

What could be helping are not only the normal “snowbird” contingent and conventions but perhaps some almost spur-of-the-moment decisions by those hit hard by the polar vortex that there has to be some better place to spend some time.

But retail trade shed 5,600 jobs in February, far more than average. Murthy also saw signs of softening specifically in employment of those who sell vehicles and parts.

She also fears bleaker times ahead for Arizona manufacturing.

About one out of every six jobs in that sector is in the aerospace industry, mostly linked to defense spending. Those companies lost 100 jobs last month and are now 1,400 below where they were a year ago.

And Murthy said that national defense spending continues to shrink.

“If this trend continues, and if peace happens and they don't need more defense-related contracts, I don't see it headed upwards,” she said.

The monthly jobless numbers tell only part of the economic story for Arizona.

New figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there were more than 184,000 workers in Arizona last year who actually wanted full-time jobs but just could not get them. That's on top of the nearly 242,000 people who were out of work and actually looking.

On top of that, BLS found another 64,500 Arizonans who were considered “marginally attached” to the labor force. They are unemployed but have indicated they actually want to work.

But they show up separate from the regular jobless numbers because they have not actually looked for work in the past four weeks.

When all these people are counted, that sets the rate for jobless and underemployed in Arizona at 16 percent, up slightly from 2012. By contrast, the national rate for the same group dropped last year and averaged 13.8 percent.

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