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Oklahoma job market hanging on

Oklahoma's job market has fared better than most expected in light of a downturning economy and high-profile layoffs earlier this year.

According to state unemployment figures released last week, the state has added 7,500 new jobs since November 2001, increasing employment by 0.5 percent.

The national unemployment rate hit 6 percent in November, itshighest level in eight years. Oklahoma posted an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in November. Oklahoma City's unemployment rate was 3.8 percent, and Tulsa's was 4.8 percent.

"Overall, Oklahoma City (employment) is still growing a lotfaster than Tulsa, but it's nothing to write home about because it's still pretty sluggish," said Lynn Gray, an economist with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

Although the total number of unemployed in the state has been decreasing, there also has been a decline in the labor force, Gray said.

In November, there were 69,500 unemployed in the state, while the number employed totaled 1.62 million.

The labor force is the total number of unemployed actively seeking work added to the number of people with jobs. The labor force lost 4,600 workers from November 2001 to November 2002, a decrease of 0.3 percent.

"A lot of people just stop looking for jobs or went back to school," Gray said. "We've seen a lot of that since January."

Among those announcing job cuts in 2002 were Tulsa companies Williams Cos., Williams Communications -- now WilTel Communications Group, WorldCom, Vartec Telecom and Boeing.

"It's been a traumatic year for Tulsa," Tulsa money manager Fred Russell said. "We've had massive layoffs precipitated by financial crises at two of Tulsa's leading employers. The confluence of red ink, staggering debt burden and controversial trading practices at Williams Cos. and too much broadband capacity at Williams Communications have led to a very unpleasant 12 months."

In Oklahoma City, about half of Celestica's 1,000 electronics workers will find themselves without jobs this week. Tyson announced 400 layoffs at its Stilwell chicken processing plant. And the towns of Prague, Okemah and Coalgate have seen their Wrangler factories close with the loss of more than 700 jobs.

Meanwhile, residents of Bartlesville and Ponca City have been dogged by rumors of job losses after the merger of ConocoPhillips and the announcement the company would move its headquarters to Houston.

"We've had some high-profile losses," said Oklahoma State University economist Dan Rickman. "But sometimes you can have a lot of smaller companies under the radar that are adding jobs. What we're seeing in the high-tech industry is a lot of the (laid-off) workers have gone independent and started small businesses from their homes."

In the first nine months of this year, manufacturers and service companies announced they were adding 5,270 Oklahoma jobs in the next three years, according to data from the Oklahoma Commerce Department.

Historical figures show that about half of jobs announced are actually created.

"It's too early to tell if we're actually replacing those high-paid jobs with lower paying jobs because in terms of per capita income, we're doing well," said Rickman, who holds the OG&E Chair in Regional Economics at OSU.

"We weren't as adversely affected by the national recession as places like Silicon Valley. Oklahoma just slowed in growth."

OSU's economic forecast for 2003 calls for a slight increase inemployment, up 0.73 percent compared with a projected increase of0.65 percent in 2002. The state hasn't seen an employment declinesince the energy bust of the 1980s.
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