California’s unemployment rate is improving. It’s now at 10.2 percent, the lowest level in three years. The unemployment rate in Los Angeles County is slightly higher, at 10.6 percent.
But to the south, there’s a place with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. It’s Orange County – where the jobless rate is 7.1 percent.
To understand why it’s so low, start with a visit to Disneyland.
The new Cars Land at Disney California Adventure is a fantasyland that takes visitors back to 1920s L.A. – when Walt Disney arrived.
But for Orange County, the benefits of this $1.1 billion four-year expansion have been very real.
“We are the single largest employer in Orange County as far as a single site,” said Mary Niven, Vice-President of California Adventure. “We have over 25,000 cast members and because of the expansion, just since September 2011, we’ve grown by 5,000.”
"Cast members" is Disney-speak for "employees" - the people who do everything from heat your churro to singing those catchy songs to operating the rides.
After all, only so much can be automated.
Consider one of the most popular new rides at Cars Land, where you race through a strikingly realistic mountain range.
“Just Radiator Springs Racers, that one attraction, it takes about 150 people everyday to operate that for our guests,” said Niven.
Disneyland is only the largest example of Orange County hiring.
UC Irvine has added more than 500 positions in the last year. An expanded Children’s Hospital in Orange has hired 400. Santa Ana-based Universal Services of America, which provides cleaning and security services, has brought on about 300 staffers.
Orange County is booming so much that it drives growth for the whole region.
That’s what UC Irvine professor John Hipp found in a study looking at 50 years of socio-economic data.
“It was striking to me to see how much it has changed in Orange County,” said Hipp. “There was this dull sense of knowledge that Orange County had more jobs than it did before. But when you look at it on a map, it’s quite striking how rich in jobs it was, especially the Irvine area.”
The “Irvine cluster” includes Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, San Joaquin Hills and the Newport Beach Coast. Hipps’ study found this part of Orange County had the highest jobs per capita in the region in the past two decades.
"We’re really kind of hitting on all cylinders here in Orange County,” said Dr. Wallace Walrod, chief economic advisor for the Orange County Business Council in Irvine.
He said the county’s unemployment rate has stayed low because it’s an easy place to do business. It’s centrally located; there’s a good transportation system; the schools are good and there’s an educated/skilled workforce; and government is business friendly.
“I think it’s the collobration that business, government, and academia have in Orange County that promotes a good environment that promotes economic growth,” said Walrod.
Key to that growth has been the diversity of industries.
“We have everything from Blizzard, which is a computer game manufacturer, to medical device companies, to Oakley making sunglasses, to Fisker making advance transportation electric cars,” said Walrod.
With everything from tourism to manufacturing, Orange County doesn’t rise and fall with one industry.
“As maybe one particular industry sector gets very hard hit – like the construction industry was very hard hit – there are other industries that are picking up as well,” said Walrod.
But as well as Orange County is doing relative to the rest of Southern California, its 7.1 percent unemployment rate is still more than twice what it used to be. Back in the good ol' days, the rate was just 3.2 percent.