Word that California's unemployment rate dipped below 11 percent for the first time in three years provided just a small sliver of hope - but a sliver nonetheless - for people who in some cases have been making weekly trips to the unemployment office for years.
The jobless rate of 10.9 percent is down three-tenths of a percentage point from December's adjusted rate of 11.2 percent, the lowest since April 2009, the state Employment Development Department said Friday.
"Down 10.9 percent from 11.2 percent, huh?" Chris Walker asked with a laugh as he looked up from a computer screen where he'd been scanning job listings at a bustling Employment Development Department office in Pasadena. "Well, I guess it's a good sign that it is going down. Even 10.9 percent is an indicator, I guess. And maybe a hopeful indicator."
Walker has been a construction contractor for 20 years, a mostly unemployed one for the last three after his business collapsed along with the recession that took down California's last housing boom.
His baseball cap turned backward as he stared at the screen, he was seeking any part-time work he might be able to find until he can rebuild his business.
The recent decline in unemployment has made him "cautiously optimistic," he said, but he doesn't really expect his business to recover until unemployment falls to 8 or 9 percent and more people with more money start spending it on construction.
Still, there appeared to be some reason for his optimism. January was the fifth consecutive month in which the employment rate has dropped. It fell a full percentage point during that period.
"It looks like we're going in the right direction," department spokesman Kevin Callori said. "It just looks like, overall, things are looking better."
Meanwhile, 20 miles from upscale Pasadena, at a job fair that attracted several hundred people to the community center in the modest Los Angeles suburb of Bell, there was more cautious optimism.
Jasmine Casan in particular was hoping the news would lead to a job, perhaps at a warehouse in the nearby industrial city of Vernon, which employs some 50,000 mostly blue-collar workers.
She was laid off from her position in a medical billing office three years ago and since then Casan, 25, and her 4-year-old son have been surviving on welfare and living with her mother, in a city where Census figures show one in five people are below the poverty line.
"I've been looking and looking but I either don't have enough experience or enough requirements," she said of trying to land another white-collar job like her old one
So she waited at the community center, which had about 100 people in line when it opened at 9 a.m., to interview for a job while her mother watched her son.
Johnny Alvarez, area manager for Select Staffing, which organized the job fair with Bell city officials, said his company's clients are looking to fill more than 200 positions, everything from forklift driver and machine operator to executive assistant, manager and supervisor with various companies. Pay, he said, ranges from minimum-wage to as much as $75,000 a year, depending on the job.
"It is good news," he said of the most recent jobless figures, adding that for the past three to four months hiring among his company's clients has been picking up.
That being the case, Dave Theriault, who manages the San Francisco office of recruiting firm Robert Half Technology, said his company is advising employers to speed up their hiring process or risk losing talented candidates to competitors.
"There's a tremendous shortage of talent right now across a lot of sectors," he said.
For job seekers with the right skills, Theriault said, the search these days won't likely take long.
"If you're a strong programmer, you're not just somebody who's sitting at home waiting for calls," he said. "People will find you."
In the San Francisco Bay area, the greatest employment gains were recorded in science, technology and related industries.
In Santa Clara County, home to major high-tech companies such as Apple Inc., Google Inc. and until recently Facebook Inc., the job category that includes engineers, designers and scientists led gains with more than 6,000 positions added. Software and computer systems employment followed close behind with 5,600 new jobs.
Overall, the state has gained jobs for seven straight months, despite the downward adjustment in January based on revised December numbers.
The state added 322,400 nonfarm jobs since the recovery began in September 2009. Job gains for all of 2011 were up 1.7 percent, compared to 0.06 percent for all of 2010 and a 5.3 percent loss at the height of the recession in 2009.
The mining and logging, construction, manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality sectors added a combined 35,400 jobs in January.
Not that Friday brought all good news. Job losses were felt in the information, financial activities, educational and health services fields, as well as government sectors. Those categories lost a combined 40,600 jobs.
And despite the dip in the unemployment rate, more than 2 million working-age Californians remain without jobs while the state is well above the national jobless rate of 8.3 percent for both January and February.
There are also pockets of high unemployment in places like Bell, where City Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana said Friday joblessness is running between 15 and 17 percent.
California's December jobless rate of 11.2 percent was second only to Nevada's 13 percent, according to the latest numbers posted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nationwide numbers had not been updated for December.
Associated Press Writer Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco contributed to this report.