By L.M. SIXEL, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Updated 11:56 p.m., Friday, November 18, 2011 
The economy may be rough in other parts of the U.S., but in Houston it’s looking more and more like it’s taking off.

A state agency reported on Friday that Houston-area employers created 79,500 jobs over the past year, including robust gains in the oil and gas industry, manufacturing and health care.

“That is getting close to what you can say is a boom,” said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston.

Smith is skeptical, however, that the area is picking up steam as quickly as the 3.1 percent year-over-year increase the Texas Workforce Commission reported. That would be the fastest job growth since February 2008 – before the economic downturn took hold – when the annual job growth was 3.5 percent.

Just last month, the commission reported that Houston was growing at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, adding 66,300 new jobs from September 2010 to September 2011.

Patrick Jankowski, the vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, agrees that the October number represents a big jump. He said it also jibes with what he’s hearing from business leaders.

They’re starting to use the word “hot” in describing the local economy, Jankowski said, and they’re getting anxious about filling openings.

“There is a sense of urgency,” he said.

Recruiting from outside

Typically, oil and gas companies have three years from the time they sign a lease to start drilling for oil and gas on private land, he said. They’ve got acreage tied up, and they want to get moving on it.

But many can’t find enough engineers, accountants and geologists, and they’re starting to recruit people from outside the region, Jankowski said.

Demand also is strong in health care. The Methodist Hospital System has about 500 job openings a month, said Willie French, director of talent acquisition. About two-thirds are for clinical positions including registered nurses, physicians and a wide range of licensed therapists.

The number of new positions is up about 5 percent this year compared to 2010, said French. He attributes the growth to Methodist’s expansion of women’s medical services at its Willowbrook hospital location, new operating room space in Sugar Land and new hospital near Katy.

Not everyone convinced

The population is aging and needs more medical care, more people are moving to Houston and breakthroughs in medical technology and treatments have spurred demand, he said.

Despite the anecdotal reports of growth, Smith questions whether Houston has suddenly become such a huge job creator. Nearly a third of the most recent spate of new jobs – a total of 23,300 – were created last month alone, according to the Workforce Commission.

Yet some of the details don’t seem to add up, Smith said.

The financial sector has been hurting, but two-thirds of its annual employment gains occurred last month, according to the data.

Retailers saw half of their annual job gains last month, and Smith said he can’t understand why that would take place in October.

Other economic data for October that might provide more context isn’t available yet, he added.

“I wish I could give you great insight but I can’t,” he said. He noted that in the past, government statisticians have tried to correct data errors by stacking up several months of job growth – or loss – into one month’s data.

Jobs data defended

According to commission spokeswoman Lisa Givens, however, the employment gains in finance and retail don’t appear out of line based on previous years.

And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides the estimates, doesn’t revise data by adding it to a month in which it doesn’t belong.

Givens emphasized that the estimates are preliminary and subject to revision when more data is received.

Another factor is that local monthly data is not adjusted for normal seasonal fluctuations and consequently, employment totals can swing wildly from one month to another.

“We won’t know until we get November and December data to determine if this is a one-month fluke,” said Smith.

City jobless rate 8.1%

The jobless rate in the Houston area – which is not seasonally adjusted – dipped to 8.1 percent in October from 8.6 percent in September.

The statewide unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in October, down from 8.5 percent in September, the commission reported.

That statewide data, which is seasonally adjusted, comes from a survey of households.

 

lm.sixel@chron.com

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