- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island has seen the largest decline in joblessness in the nation in the past year, falling 1.7 percentage points to 5.3 percent in October. But while the state has come a long way from the recession years of double-digit unemployment, economists warn it is still lagging the nation and region on jobs and other measures.

The unemployment rate stood at 4.6 percent in New England in October and 5 percent nationally in November, the most recent data available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rhode Island still has the highest jobless rate in New England, followed by Connecticut with a rate of 5.1 percent.

The jobless rate in Rhode Island was one of the worst in the nation for years during the recession, reaching peaks of more than 11 percent for 32 months from 2009 to 2011. One reason the recent drop has been so big is because the rate was so high to begin with, according to Edinaldo Tebaldi, an economics professor at Bryant University.

While the drop signals an improving labor market, there are other factors at play. Many people have dropped out of the labor force entirely, economists said. The state has recovered fewer than 70 percent of the 39,800 jobs lost during the recession, according to state employment figures.

The unemployment rate also masks the large number of Rhode Island residents who commute to jobs in high-paying sectors like technology in Massachusetts, University of Rhode Island economist Len Lardaro said.

“There are a lot of jobs there, they’re paid better,” he said. “It’s not because our state did all these things to make us more competitive. They literally did nothing for years and years, so we’ve been benefiting off national growth, Massachusetts growth, and unemployed Rhode Islanders dropping off” the labor rolls.

Tebaldi said the state is also lagging the nation and region in gross domestic product growth. Another concern is the construction sector, which has lost almost 7,000 jobs from peak employment levels around 2007, he said.

There are some bright spots, including improvements in employment in sectors including leisure and hospitality, education and health care.

“We’re doing a lot better than we did no doubt about it,” Lardaro said. “Even though we’re doing a lot better, we’re not doing great.”

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