CHAMPAIGN – Illinois' unemployment rate fell in May to 9.1 percent, the state Department of Employment Security said Thursday, the second straight monthly drop after a series of worrisome increases earlier this year.
The department chalked up part of the gain to improved construction hiring and much of the rest to jobs added in the professional and business services sector, which includes engineering and computer-aided design positions. Those jobs could be related to an improved construction outlook as well.
Despite the drop, unemployment in Illinois remains well above the national rate of 7.6 percent for May and the state's jobless rate remains among the highest in the country. May figures for all 50 states won't be available until Friday, but Illinois has been among the worst much of this year.
Illinois employment officials weren't ready Thursday to predict a construction boom, acknowledging that some of the hiring that produced a net 3,900 new jobs could be the result of better weather allowing stalled work to move forward rather than any significant increase in demand.
"Some of it certainly is pent up from a cold and wet spring," department spokesman Greg Rivara said. "But the professional and business services, much of that growth was in engineering and computer-aided design," which are potential indicators of new work to come.
Ken Simonson, an economist with the Associated General Contractors, said construction in Illinois has been hurt by the lagging state economy, including slow growth in Chicago and layoffs at Caterpillar plants and among contractors as that company's business slows. He added that he isn't ready to pin too much hope on one month of employment improvement.
In all, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell by 11,600 to 599,200, a 1.9 percent drop. Those figures don't reflect long-term unemployed people who've stopped trying to find work.
The state's restaurant and entertainment businesses were hiring in May, adding a net 4,800 new jobs in the hospitality and leisure category, coinciding with the onset of warm weather.
"What's encouraging about the leisure number is, those doing the hiring would seem to be optimistic that the demand is going to go up, or else they wouldn't feel it was necessary to hire," Rivara said.
Government employers cut a net 6,200 jobs for the month. Some might have been school jobs that ended with the close of the school year, which Rivara said would be an unusually large number and one that state employment officials cannot yet explain.
It seems unlikely that many of those job losses could have been in the public schools that will be closed in Chicago, since the school district only announced the related layoffs this month.
Trade, transportation and utility companies shed 3,500 more jobs than they added in May, a drop Rivara said was related to slowdowns for retailers and among manufacturers that remain a key part of the state's economy.
"Truck and ground transportation," he said. "People weren't buying as much earlier in the year, so there was no reason to ship out as much."
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