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NORTH BAY -- Unemployment rates across the North Bay in December edged downward slightly or remained at essentially the same high levels as in November, and Marin County's jobless rate fell below 7 percent for the first time in nearly three years.

However, over the year, all six North Coast counties saw a significant decrease in unemployment rates, according to figures released this morning from the state Employment Development Department. With the exception of Marin, which continues to have the lowest rate in California, most counties were virtually unchanged from the month.Marin County

Marin, part of a three-county West Bay Region that includes San Francisco and San Mateo counties, had a 6.5 percent unemployment rate, down from November's 6.9 percent and below last year's rate of 7.8 percent.

The county's jobless rate last month slipped below the February 2009 rate of 6.9 percent. The rate had been above 7 percent since then.

State figures for industry-specific employment for Marin won't be available for 2011 for a couple of months. Yet the county has benefited from two key factors -- a healthy and growing professional services sector and the reemergence of Marin as a retail center, according to Robert Eyler, Ph.D., a professor of economics for Sonoma State University and a Frank Howard Allen Realtors research scholar. He recently resumed his role as interim head of the Marin Economic Forum.

Companies such as BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Autodesk, Lucasfilm and The Buck Institute on Age Research have all seen recent growth, and the county's labor force has benefited, Dr. Eyler said.

On the retail front, the recovery is taking hold in other Bay Area counties, so it's not particularly surprising that Marin would follow that trend, he said.

Another factor to consider for the growth in Marin is whether employers are lessening their reliance on contract workers -- known as 1099 employees -- and moving back toward traditional, full-time payroll jobs. Dr. Eyler said early research points to this trend, but more will be known when tax season is over in mid-April.

"When we see payroll rising, that's a good trend," Dr. Eyler said.

Such a trend indicates Marin is experiencing a more traditional rebound, he added.Sonoma County

That's not exactly the case in neighboring Sonoma County, Dr. Eyler said. The preliminary unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in December, and like Marin's rate, it's the lowest level in about three years. The unemployment rate was a revised 9 percent in November and below last year's estimate of 10 percent. There were 2,800 fewer industry jobs in the county than a year earlier, despite the top year-over-year job gain of 500 in construction.

While the unemployment rate has held steady throughout 2011, the county's workforce shrank by 1.3 percent over the year to 250,700 last month. A couple of factors could be at play, Dr. Eyler said.

"One possible explanation for that is retirement," he said. "Loss of employment was big in the government sector, so you're losing that from the labor force. Other organizations are not replacing them yet, but there's been slow movement toward construction."

Unlike Marin, Sonoma County may still have a sizable temporary workforce of 1099 employees, which would indicate that Sonoma County is recovering more slowly than its southern neighbor, according to Dr. Eyler.

"The other possibility is that we are seeing a conversion to contract work in Sonoma," he said. "It's much more of a classic recovery in Marin with payroll. It doesn't mean people aren't working (in Sonoma County), but it's difficult to track."

Still another possible factor is the so-called discouraged workforce -- people who've given up searching for employment and are thus not counted in the statistics.

"But that's a factor everywhere," Dr. Eyler said.Napa County

The unemployment rate in Napa County was 9.0 percent last month, up from a revised 8.7 percent in November but well below the year-ago estimate of 10.7 percent. The uptick in joblessness in Napa came largely from a monthly loss of 500 jobs in farming, according to state figures, likely the result of the late end of the 2011 harvest in the county's vineyards.

Yearly gains were posted, however, in health and education services, which added 500 jobs over the year. The trade, transportation and utilities industry as well as the leisure and hospitality sector each added 400 jobs each over the year. Business and professional services gained 300 jobs over the year. The county had net growth of 1,600 jobs in 2011 -- a growth rate of 2.6 percent.

Napa County has been able to carve itself a niche, focusing much of its economic efforts on two of its core strengths -- the wine industry and tourism, Dr. Eyler said.

"Napa is starting to declare itself as a hospitality and tourism center for this region and the labor force is seeing the pay off," he said. Significant construction projects geared toward those sectors are underway, such as the expansion of The Meritage Resort & Spa. "In general, it's becoming the shining star in the region as far as having basic stability in creating jobs."Solano County

The unemployment rate in the Solano County was 10.5 percent in December, unchanged from the revised November rate of 10.5 percent but 1.5 percentage points below the 12.0 percent rate in December 2010.

The county had a net gain of 900 jobs over the year. Leisure and hospitality added 600 jobs, while education and health services and trade, transportation and utilities each added 300 and professional and business services brought on 200. The government sector shed 300 positions.Lake County

Lake County's unemployment rate rose to 17.1 percent in December from a revised rate of 16.9 percent in November but 2 percentage points lower than the 19.3 percent rate in December 2010.Mendocino County

Mendocino County's official jobless rate was virtually unchanged at 10.2 percent last month, compared with the 10.3 percent rate for November. However, there was 1.4 percentage points of improvement from the 11.6 percent rate in December 2010.

These North Coast unemployment rates compare with the December rates of 11.1 percent for California and 8.5 percent for the nation.Unemployment rates for North Bay counties

CountyDecember

2010November

2011December

2011State rank

(out of 58)

Lake19.3%16.9%17.1%52

Marin7.8%7.0%6.5%1

Mendocino11.6%10.3%10.2%18

Napa10.7%8.7%9.0%10

Solano12.0%10.5%10.5%19

Sonoma10.0%9.0%8.9%8

California12.5%11.3%11.1%--

U.S.9.4%8.7%8.5%--

Source: California Employment Development Department and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.