County jobless rate lowest in state

State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations statistics show that Kaua‘i still has the state’s lowest unemployment rate among the counties, tied with Maui County and the City & County of Honolulu at 2.2 percent, while the state’s February jobless rate remained well below the national average.

The seasonally adjusted rate for all of Hawai‘i was 2.5 percent in February, up slightly from January’s 15-year record low of 2.4 percent. The national average also jumped by 0.1 percentage point during that time, from 4.7 percent to 4.8 percent.

Kaua‘i County’s unemployment rate also jumped by the same margin, from 2.1 percent in January to 2.2 percent in February, though it is no longer alone as the lowest in the state. Honolulu and Maui counties held fast at 2.2 percent, while Hawai‘i County came in at 2.6 percent.

Though the number of unemployed remained at 700 county-wide, Kaua‘i’s number of employed laborers decreased by 500, from 32,750 to 32,250 from January to February, hence the bump in unemployment.

Some attribute Hawai‘i’s low rates to strong, diverse development.

“Hawai‘i’s consistent growth has produced considerable job creation over a wide range of sectors,” said Nelson Befitel, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, in Monday’s press release.

For others, however, the low rates reflect an underlying problem.

“It’s nice that we have a strong economy, but the downside is that we don’t have enough skilled laborers,” said Pat Fleck of the Kaua‘i County Office of Economic Development. Fleck and others point out several factors unique to Hawai‘i that keep the unemployment rate down.

For one, the high cost of living makes it difficult to relocate. Also, Hawai‘i has more seniors per capita than most states, meaning a significant portion of the population, 17 percent, has aged out of the workforce.

Also, many Hawai‘i residents who leave the state for college do not come back, finding better opportunity, higher pay and cheaper housing on the Mainland, she said.

“We have a shortage of workers, and quite a few that are working two jobs, which is not necessarily reflected in unemployment,” Fleck said.

She also mentioned “underemployment,” a term she uses to describe laborers with under-utilized skill sets, such as a computer-science college graduate working as a tree-trimmer.

As a result, state officials are looking to expand the workforce, enticing retirees back into employment, and targeting everyone from the disabled to ex-offenders to high school and college students, Fleck said.

As the island with the smallest population, Kaua‘i often has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, for better or worse, depending on the source.

“Because we’re smaller we don’t have as many people to tap into,” Fleck said.

For the month, the most significant shift in employment statewide was a 1.7-percent increase (2,000 jobs) in trade, transportation and utilities, which was aided by the recent influx of new retail stores, and leaders of tourism businesses and cruise lines hiring.

With 6,700 new jobs (a 5.8-percent increase) dating back to February, 2005, more jobs have been added in trade, transportation and utilities than any other category.

Boosted by 4,200 additional jobs over that same period, construction’s 13.2-percent increase in employment marked the highest growth rate of any industry.

Other categories, leisure and hospitality, manufacturing, education and health services and other services, remained stable. In all, the private sector, which spans all categories, saw an increase of 19,800 jobs.

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