By MARC LEVY
HARRISBURG - It was just a year ago that the size of Pennsylvania's labor force hit a record high, even though it came with some politically inconvenient news for Gov. Tom Corbett: The state's unemployment rate had risen to 8.2 percent, higher than it was when he took office.
Corbett's labor and industry secretary, Julia Hearthway, nevertheless sought out a bright spot, saying, "A growing labor force means people have confidence in Pennsylvania's economy and their chances of finding a job."
A year later, the situation has flipped, and signs that confidence in the job market is sinking could help shape this year's governor's race. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is the lowest in five years, at 6.9 percent. Normally that kind of decline would be good news, except that it is being driven by a shrinking civilian labor force that is blamed, in part, on rising frustration with finding a job.
There are also signs that Pennsylvania is lagging the national economy. According to preliminary numbers for last year, Pennsylvania's labor force shrank faster in 2013 while its rate of job growth was among the nation's slowest.
And even though economists agree that governors are bit players amid the wider economic forces that determine short-term job growth, the subject plays prominently into the way candidates are framing their objectives. When Corbett, a Republican, ran for governor in 2010, he said he wanted to make Pennsylvania No. 1 in job growth. Would-be Democratic challengers are saying the same thing. Now that he is running for re-election, Corbett often cites the number of jobs added to payrolls since he became governor, while Democrats blame him for the state's relatively sluggish job growth.
Candidates, however, should be cautious when making claims about the effect of their economic policies, said Mark Price, a labor economist with the union-affiliated Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg.
"Do not overpromise that your policies are going to radically change the pace of job growth in the future because that's a pretty heavy lift," Price said.
Since Corbett became governor in January 2011, Pennsylvania's rate of job growth has slipped every year as the state and the nation recovered from the recession differently. Pennsylvania's recessionary slump was not as severe as the nation's, while its rate of job recovery was faster initially, in 2010.
Corbett emphasizes that the economy in Pennsylvania is growing, regardless of the rate.
"We're employing more people. Which is more important: What the percentage is or the number of people employed?" he asked Friday in an interview. He also strikes notes of optimism.
"There are some out there that believe the glass is empty. Some would say it's half full. Some would say it's half empty," Corbett said. "I believe we are growing in the right direction."
Some economists envision an improving job market in 2014, and it is likely that Pennsylvania and the U.S. will exceed their all-time highs in jobs soon. But that may not mean that people will feel substantially better about the economy.
"I would expect that (the) proportion of individuals who are working to keep dropping and the total number of discouraged workers to go up for a while," said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "And I would expect the declines in the (unemployment) rate at least in the near term to be driven by unemployed job seekers giving up."
That discouragement appears to be having a broader effect on how people feel.
In a poll released Thursday by Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, concern over unemployment and personal finances hit the highest point - 26 percent of registered voters surveyed - since August 2012 and ranked as the No. 1 issue. Sixty-two percent said the state is "on the wrong track," 25 percent think it is headed in the right direction and 13 percent didn't express an opinion.
It is reasonable to link dropping confidence in the job market to rising concern over unemployment, said G. Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall's pollster and a professor of public affairs. Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said governors probably get too much credit and blame for the economy. But, Borick said, the old adages about "it's the economy, stupid" and "pocketbook politics" are true: When voters do not feel optimistic about their income or job, they punish the incumbent - in this case, Corbett.
"How much of that lays at the feet of a governor is debatable," Borick said. "But what is not debatable is that incumbents pay a price for poor economic times."
Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania.