The prospect of more openings in Jackson County brought new job-seekers into the mix last month, masking modestly good results in the local labor market.

The prospect of more openings in Jackson County brought new job-seekers into the mix last month, masking modestly good results in the local labor market.

Spurred by the retail sector, the county's employment rose by 170 jobs in November over October — and 400 more than in the previous November — according to figures released Monday by the Oregon Employment Department. Retail trade jumped by 510 jobs in November, giving the county nearly 14,500 jobs in the sector.

But even as employment edged up, the county's unemployment rate grew. Jackson County's civilian labor force has swelled by nearly 3,500 people in the past year, dwarfing the increase in jobs.

The surge of applicants looking for work drove the seasonally adjusted jobless figure for the county up to 13.7 percent from 13.2 percent in October.

A year ago, the county's nonfarm payroll employment stood at 90,233. That figure reached 93,717 last month.

"A lot of this is making me scratch my head and making me wonder," said Employment Department regional economist Guy Tauer.

Tauer said the sobering employment statistics might actually have been brought on by encouraging economic signs that prompted more would-be workers to re-enter the market.

"Some of the people who were discouraged a year ago, thinking no one was hiring, are more encouraged this year," Tauer said. "The payroll employment has been up for a couple of months. That has a tendency to push up the unemployment number because there are more people competing for the openings out there."

He has another theory, as well.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported job openings grew 32 percent, but hiring rose just 5 percent. "There's a disconnect between the number of hires and the number of openings reported," Tauer said. "That tells me employers are being very picky about who they are adding to their staff. If they find the right person, they will fill the job, but they are sitting on their hands in other cases."

In neighboring Josephine County, the seasonally adjusted jobless rate rose to 14.7 percent from 14.4 percent in October and 13.8 percent in November 2009.

While parts of Oregon are emerging from the long recession, the economic progress didn't necessarily show up in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The University of Oregon Index of Economic Indicators, released Monday, rose 0.2 percent to 87.2, the second consecutive monthly increase for the state.

"Southern Oregon and Central Oregon — areas disproportionately dependent on housing — are having a harder time recovering as the economy regains speed," said Tim Duy, director of the Oregon Economic Forum. The forum releases the monthly index, which is based on a 1997 benchmark equaling 100.

"There has been some stabilization in the number of building permits, so with the ups and downs, there is a limit to the downside. In some cases, housing has bottomed; in some cases it is firming."

Anecdotal information suggests wood-products activity has stabilized, but in comparison, Duy said, it pales to four or five years ago.

"Firms that have managed to survive are obviously positioned to take more market share from those that didn't as the economy accelerates," the UO economist said. "There are so many firms that do customized products from plywood to milled lumber. You see the same thing in a lot of sectors, but it is always hard when you get down to (company) level anecdotes and see what's going in the aggregate."

On a positive note, Jackson and Josephine county foreclosures declined precipitously in November, according to the latest figures compiled by RealtyTrac of Irvine, Calif.

Jackson County saw 214 homes in one stage or another of foreclosure in November, down from 264 the month before. In Josephine County, the number dropped to 69, down from 96 in October.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.