Unemployment rates in roughly two-thirds of the nation's largest metropolitan areas dipped in May as the gradual economic recovery spurred some hiring.
An analysis of Labor Department data released Wednesday found that jobless rates dropped in 237 of 382 areas in May from April. It rose in 118 areas and was flat in 27.
The figures aren't adjusted to account for seasonal trends, such as lifeguards hired during the summer or retail clerks let go after the holiday shopping season. So they tend to be volatile from month to month.
Despite some improvements on both the local and national employment fronts, millions of out-of-work Americans face a difficult time finding work. Roughly 134 metro areas had double-digit unemployment rates in May.
El Centro, Calif., laid claim to the highest unemployment rate in the country — 27.5 percent. Unemployment there is notoriously high because of many seasonal farm workers without jobs.
Metro areas in California, Florida and Arizona and Nevada, states hit hardest by the housing bust, also were among those suffering double-digit unemployment. So were industrial rust-belt areas, such as in Michigan's metro areas of Flint (14.7 percent) and Detroit-Warren-Livonia (13.7 percent), and Kokomo, Ind. (12.0 percent) as well as manufacturing hubs like Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton (13.0 percent) in North Carolina.
By contrast, Bismarck, N.D., had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.1 percent. Other metro areas in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska reported low rates. Higher prices for agricultural commodities has bolstered the upper Plains states. In addition, because many of those states didn't experience the housing boom, they escaped the jarring bust.
Meanwhile, 36 metro areas reported unemployment rates at or below 6 percent, a figure that is consistent with healthy employment conditions on a national scale. The metro area of Washington, D.C. and Arlington and Alexandria, Va., was part of that group — shielded by federal government hiring.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent in May, from 9.9 percent in April. A big burst of government hiring for temporary census workers helped. But many people also gave up searching for work and were no longer counted, another force behind the decline.
A new employment snapshot will be released by the government on Friday, and economists are predicting it will be on the weak side. Unemployment is expected to go up a notch to 9.8 percent in June. Total payrolls — government plus private U.S. companies — are expected to drop by 110,000, as the temporary census jobs start to disappear. Hiring by private companies should improve, with job gains of 112,000, better than the 41,000 in May. Still, the slow pace of private job creation means unemployment will stay high for this year and next.
"Even though there's plenty of challenges on our plate, none is more important than reversing the damage of the great recession and getting folks back to work," President Barack Obama said in remarks to a town hall meeting in Racine, Wis.
Dennis Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said he believes the economy will keep growing at a modest pace and unemployment will gradually come down.
But in a speech delivered in Baton Rouge, La., Lockhart acknowledged that the Gulf oil spill, Europe's debt crisis, cost cutting by overextended state and local governments and troubled real-estate markets have heightened the "sense of uncertainty and risk" to the economic outlook. For those reasons, the Fed is right to hold interest rates at record lows, he said. "Conditions at this moment call for patience," he said.
On the Gulf oil spill, Lockhart said: "So far, the measurable economic effects have been mostly local and regional."
Among the places seeing large over the month declines in their jobless rates are Ocean City, N.J., Sandusky, Ohio, and Springfield, Ill. By contrast, areas in Louisiana — hit by the BP oil spill — saw gains. Those include Baton Rouge, New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner and Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux. Still, the metro areas of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houma each have unemployment rates well below the national average. And most people who lost jobs as a result of the spill are likely to be compensated for their lost income from special funds set up by BP.