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Area jobless rate climbs with plant closures
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The unemployment rate in Stanislaus County marked a new milestone in March, reaching its highest point in 14 years.

Stanislaus County's unemployment rate reached 17.5 percent for the month of March, up from a revised 16.8 percent in February, according to a report issued by the state's Employment Development Department on Friday. The department reported 42,800 people were unemployed in Stanislaus County for the month of March.

The county wasn't the only one to set new highs. The state unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent for March, reflecting a job loss of 62,000 for the month. The unemployment rate in February was 10.6 percent. A year ago the unemployment rate in the state was 8.5 percent.

Other local counties also saw their numbers rise. Merced County ended March with a 20.4 percent unemployment rate and San Joaquin County reached 16.4 percent.

Broken down by city, according to the EDD, the southwest area of Modesto had the highest unemployment rate for March, with 45.6 percent and east Oakdale had the lowest at 6.6 percent.

EDD Labor Market Analyst Liz Baker said the county's high unemployment rate reflects both a seasonal decline and the continued economic downturn. Farm labor, which accounts for a large number of seasonal workers in the county, typically begin hiring in April and stay high through the summer harvesting. Baker said it is uncertain if seasonal hiring this year will have a significant effect on the county's unemployment rate.

"The economic downturn has effected so many different industries and we've been seeing consistent decreases that make it hard to predict what will pull us out of this slump," Baker said.

March's unemployment rate is the highest it has been in the county since April 1995 when it hit 17.6 percent, according to Baker.

The two industries with the most job losses for the year in the county were manufacturing, which took a big hit when the Hershey's plant in Oakdale closed, and trade, transportation, and utilities, which includes retail store closures that have been plaguing the Central Valley for the last year.

A high unemployment rate in the county was hardly news to Robert Smithcamp, a local resident who has been unemployed for two years.

"It doesn't look good," Smithcamp said. "I don't see anything coming too soon in the future. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Smithcamp worked in construction and installing air-conditioning and ventilation units and lost his job when the housing market went sour.

"I've been going around making resumes and posting them on web sites," he said. "I read that people used to say that people who are looking for jobs are beating the pavement and now they're beating the keyboards. We have to try other ways to find jobs now."

The one bright spot in the EDD report was an increase in hiring in the Healthcare and Education services sector. A total of 600 jobs from the two industries were added to the county's ranks in March - 500 in healthcare and 100 in education, predominantly at private schools and colleges, Baker said.

Ironically, the governor is expected to open up a multitude of jobs with the EDD to deal with the high number of unemployed.