Tech hiring helps push Austin’s jobless rate below 3 percent

The Austin-area unemployment rate in April slipped below 3 percent for the first time since the dot-com boom’s heyday, as local tech and other employers boosted hiring during the month.

The metro area’s jobless rate dropped to 2.9 percent in April from 3.1 percent the prior month, according to data released Friday by the Texas Workforce Commission. The last time it was lower than 3 percent was in November 2000, when the rate was 2.3 percent, the commission data show.

Melinda Alison, regional president in Austin for the global staffing firm Robert Half, said the current employment situation in Austin is a clear advantage for job seekers. In 19 years at Robert Half, Alison said she has never seen such a competitive market. She pointed out improvement in many sectors, such as finance, health care and construction.

“Certainly candidates are in the driver’s seat, and it is a candidates’ market,” Alison said.

Several companies with headquarters elsewhere have been opening significant operations in Central Texas, and a lot of small and midsized businesses have been hiring highly skilled candidates locally, she said.

“They have a lot going on,” she said.

While a small contraction in the official labor force contributed to the lower unemployment rate, strong growth in local payrolls helped pull more workers into jobs. Local employers added 4,800 jobs during the month, a 0.5 percent increase that was in line with typical rates for April, according to commission data.

Job creation among Austin’s high-tech firms surged last month after relatively slow growth through the first quarter of the year. Professional, scientific and technical services firms, which include many of the region’s high-tech occupations, added 1,300 jobs, expanding their payrolls 1.4 percent – roughly double the typical growth rate for the month.

Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council, said April’s job numbers are encouraging but not “terribly surprising.” Employment rates have been on the rise across the country, she said.

“There are lots of positive signs that we are emerging from a sluggish first quarter,” she said.

When there are signs of an economy perking up, companies — like many in Austin — naturally begin accelerated hiring.

“I think that is what we are seeing,” Brunner said, noting the region’s “incredible innovation economy.”

Construction hiring also jumped, adding 1,100 jobs and growing more than double the average April rate.

State Rep. John Cyrier, a Republican from Lockhart who is also the founder and CEO of Austin-based Sabre Commercial Inc., said his and other construction companies have been busy lately with jobs coming on line in April.

Sabre and other companies had waited in the first part of the year for projects to get started, Cyrier said. A busy market, along with delays in permitting and lending pushed the start of some major projects – including work on a few high-rises — from the early months of 2016 into April, he said.

And now, he said, “They are starting to go.”

Cyrier also said bosses within the construction industry have seen skilled workers returning to Austin and other metro areas from the oil patch as the oil and gas industry has seen a contraction lately.

Hopeful for steady growth in the coming months, Cyrier said he is feeling “cautiously optimistic.”

Austin’s continued growth belied the energy sector’s drag on much of Texas. Statewide, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate ticked up to 4.4 percent in April from 4.3 percent in March. The national rate was flat at 5 percent in April.

The workforce commission doesn’t immediately release seasonally adjusted data for metro areas. But the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said Friday that the seasonally adjusted rate was flat at 3.2 percent.

Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of talent at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the encouraging unemployment number reflects a strong economy that is providing opportunities for all who seek work, whether they are new or longtime Austinites.

“Great to see business, professional services and construction all have a strong month,” Scheberle said. “But the economy is very dynamic. The chamber is keeping a strong eye on startup activity and the changes at our larger companies, many of whom are evolving.”

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