COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina’s job market is on the brink of widespread recovery, reaching the lowest unemployment rate last month in four and a half years, economists said Friday.
The state’s jobless rate dipped to 8.4 percent in March from 8.6 percent in February, with every county in the state showing improvement, according to a report from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. The national rate fell to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent.
Less than half of the state’s counties now have rates in double digits, and all of the major metro areas, excluding Florence, have unemployment rates below 7 percent, the report showed.
Economist hailed the across-the-state rebound as a milestone.
“We’ve seen pickups before but they were localized,” College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said. “This was statewide and much more exciting. This is a trend. It’s noteworthy.”
Clemson economist Bruce Yandle said the report showed a true rebound in jobs, and not a false blip resulting from discouraged people giving up on the job hunt and leaving the workforce.
“It’s a pretty sight to see,” he said. “I give it an A-plus.”
Leading the charge back to near pre-recession levels were rural counties like Marion, which still has state’s highest unemployment rate, but saw a dip of 1.5 points in March to 16.2 percent. In 2009, the county’s jobless rate peaked at 20.5 percent.
Lexington County, with the state’s lowest unemployment rate, dropped to only 6 percent in March from 6.4 in February, and down from 7 percent a year ago.
Nearly all sectors showed increases in jobs in March, from financial activities to government and manufacturing. Even those industries that dropped, such as construction, saw minimal declines.
University of South Carolina economist Joey Von Nessen noted that all sectors except business and professional services – which include temporary workers – showed year to year gains from 2012 to 2013. That’s an indication, he said, that firms are feeling confident enough about the economy to transition part-time and temporary positions into full times jobs.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “South Carolina is plugging away.”
But the big driver in the March numbers is the hospitality and tourism industry, which added 9,800 jobs since February. Not only is the state poised to experience its biggest tourism season in years — and hiring more people to meet it — but more locals are starting to eat, drink and be merry, experts said.
“We have every indication that this is going to be a banner year,” said John Durst, chief executive of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. “And we’re not just talking about people coming from outside South Carolina, but people inside South Carolina eating out and taking more trips.”
One of those people is Evelyn Morales of Columbia.
Morales, 39, was laid off from her job at a cell phone company in October 2011 and was out of work for 15 months. She was hired in January by a publishing house as a researcher.
After about four months of steady paychecks, Morales said she feels like its time to spend a little money on leisure.
“I haven’t had a vacation in three years,” she said. “But I am definitely going to Folly Beach this summer.”
Hefner said stories like Morales’ indicate that a real recovery from the recent unpleasantness may be on the horizon.
People have expressed confidence in the past that the economy is improving, he said.
“But confidence doesn’t put cash in your wallets,” he said. “Jobs do. There are more people working, so more people are going to pull that cash out (of) their wallet and spend it.”
Job market improving
South Carolina’s job market is showing signs of widespread improvement.
Jobless rate in South Carolina in March. That’s down from 8.6 percent in February.
Why it matters: The jobless rate is a gauge of unemployment trends in South Carolina. The rate peaked at nearly 12 percent in January 2010. The last time it was this low was October 2008.
Highest unemployment rate in the state in Marion County. That’s down from 17.7 percent in February and down from 18.8 percent in January 2012.
Why it matters: The state’s rural counties were the hardest hit by the recent recession and are having the hardest time recovering. The recent report shows fewer than half of all counties in the state are still in double-digit jobless rates.
The unemployment rate in the Midlands. That includes a 6 percent rate in Lexington County, the state’s lowest, and a 7.4 percent rate in Richland County. The Charleston and Greenville areas both had a 6.4 percent rate. The Florence area, with its more rural surrounding counties, had an 8.9 percent rate.
Why it matters: The state’s metropolitan areas in general are returning to more normal employment levels. As more people find jobs, they will increase spending on dining out, buying cars and homes and taking vacations.
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce