Amid the bleak jobs picture for South Jersey came one seemingly bright piece of news this month from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Atlantic County, which has one of the nation’s worst metro unemployment rates, in December saw the nation’s best improvement in that rate over the previous year, according to federal numbers.

The unemployment rate declined from 14.4 percent in December 2012 to 10.0 percent in December 2013, a 4.4 percentage-point gain that was better than any other of the 372 biggest metro areas in America.

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Economists said the rate can be misleading, because it does not account for thousands of Atlantic County workers who dropped out of the labor pool. But the 1,900-job gain observed last year is cause for optimism, said Joseph Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.

Last year was the first since the 2007 recession in which Atlantic County saw an increase in jobs. The number of workers employed in the county had fallen by 14,900 between 2006 and 2012 until last year’s uptick.

Those 1,900 jobs were observed in two broad sectors, with about 1,000 more people employed in trade, transportation and utilities and 400 additionally employed in education and health care in 2013, according to federal data seasonally adjusted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

“The number of new jobs is reflective of the diversifying of the product. We hope that would be a good trend,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the areas of job growth observed by federal economists match his experience with local employers.

South Jersey Industries, based in Folsom, this week said it added 65 new positions statewide in 2013. Atlantic City Electric, based in Mays Landing, hired 47 people statewide in 2013.

“The utilities have been a stable part of our market. They’re gearing up for additional employees as they have an opportunity to improve their infrastructure,” Kelly said.

Health care and education have been bright spots as well, he said.

AtlantiCare added employees with the opening last year of its cancer center in Middle Township, said Rick Lovering, vice president of human resources. AtlantiCare also experienced growth with its thoracic surgery department and expanded the reach of its physicians group, which offers treatment at offices across South Jersey.

“I think the growth is going to be steady. It will mirror the population, which is not predicting huge growth,” he said.

Kelly said The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey made bold moves by embracing the former NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park and acquiring the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club in Galloway Township.

The drone-aircraft industry holds special promise in Atlantic County. The aviation park will be working with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on a new federal research project.

“We see that as entrepreneurial thinking. We’re real bullish on the technology park,” Kelly said. “We could have incubator sites to bring in some of these smaller entrepreneurs. I think that’s a really strong opportunity for this marketplace. It screams the diversity we’ve been looking for in the way of new jobs.”

The Federal Reserve figures also reflect 400 fewer government jobs in Atlantic County in 2013.

Michael Stinson, Atlantic City revenue and finance director, said municipalities across the county have been cutting back on staffing.

“Everyone has been cutting back a little bit,” he said. “Any increase in employment year over year is a positive thing. It’s beneficial to the city and the county.”

The unemployment figures do not yet reflect the closing in January of the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel and its resulting layoff of 1,600 workers.

“It’s true that Atlantic City’s unemployment rate continues to decline,” said Oliver Cooke, associate professor of economics at Stockton. “However, this decline continues to be driven by declines in the metropolitan area’s labor force. It does not represent robust job creation.”

While the county added 1,900 jobs, it lost 4,400 workers who left the labor force through retirement, relocation outside the area or simply giving up on finding a job.

“The bottom line is that the metropolitan area’s declining unemployment rate does not signal a healthy economy — rather, a very poor one,” Cooke said. “The local economy’s ongoing struggles continue to drive people out of the labor force. In many cases, these individuals have joined the ranks of the discouraged or have moved.”

Meanwhile, the December 2012 numbers likely were artificially depressed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Many businesses were either closed altogether or sustained losses in business from the storm’s aftermath.

“So the improvement is illusory,” Hughes said. “The same with payroll sectors — being compared to a very bad December 2012.”

Tom Woodruff, of Hamilton Township, president of the Atlantic City Jitney Association, said business among his independent franchise owners continues to decline, especially mid-week.

“It’s some of the worst times we’ve had in the history of the association. The association survived the Great Depression and world wars and major recessions and these last few months have been the worst since the 2008 recession,” he said. “Numbers coming out of Atlantic City are horrendous. Our business is off 50 percent from two years ago.”

Woodruff said Atlantic City should go after more conventions, a strategy Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian recently endorsed.

“We’re constantly looking at new ways to generate revenue. Atlantic City has really become a weekend town,” Woodruff said. “We need something during the week, conventions and entertainment. The city has a major task ahead of them. If it’s not solved, we’re in trouble.”

Atlantic County jobs

Year    Jobless rate   Total employment

2006* 5.7 percent    130,800 

2012   14.4 percent  115,900 

2013   10 percent     117,800 

          Trade/utilities,    Health care,  

Year    Transportation    Education     Government

2006*  22,200              18,100         23,200

2012    22,000              19,000         22,600

2013    23,000              19,400         22,200

Source: Federal Reserve of Philadelphia      *Pre-recession

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