South Carolina’s unemployment rate plunged to 6.6 percent in December, dipping below the national rate of 6.7 percent for the first time since January 2001.
The drop from 7.1 percent in November to below the national average is a significant milestone that will likely become a political rose in the lapel of Gov. Nikki Haley as her re-election campaign against Democrat Vincent Sheheen kicks into high gear.
“She probably gets more credit than she deserves when things are good, and more blame than she deserves when things go the other way,” said University of South Carolina political scientist Robert Oldendick. “But the numbers set the tone that things are going right in the state. It says that the atmosphere is business friendly and it’s a good place to start a company. If it stays this way through October, it will really be to her advantage.”
Haley has made job creation the hallmark of her administration, hiring former BMW executive Bobby Hitt as her Commerce secretary and often noting that she gives corporate CEOs her cell phone number so she can be a personal problem solver for companies willing to relocate here or expand.
The Lexington County Republican has enjoyed a string of big expansion announcements here from tire makers in particular, notably Bridgestone and Michelin, as well as the Upstate’s stalwart automaker BMW and Lowcountry newcomer Boeing.
In fact, Continental Tire officials on Tuesday welcomed Haley to the grand opening of their new $500 million manufacturing plant in Sumter County, which will hire 1,600 workers. Haley says more than 40,000 jobs have been announced during her tenure, but many of them won’t be realized for years and it is very difficult to track whether or not the number of jobs announced by expanding and relocating companies will ever be created.
But Haley was quick to capitalize on Tuesday’s good news.
“Getting our unemployment rate to this nearly six-year low didn’t happen overnight and didn’t happen by itself – it’s the product of Team South Carolina working together to build the kind of business environment that attracts new companies and encourages existing ones to expand,” the governor said in a press release. “The fact that more South Carolinians are working today than since 2008, proves we are moving in the right direction.”
The 6.6 percent jobless rate is the lowest since June 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate, which had stagnated above 8 percent for most of 2013, has dropped drastically in the past few months, falling 1.5 percentage points since August.
The labor force increased slightly from November to December – a time when retailers typically are hiring temporary holiday help – to 2,153,568 million. Still, 16,670 people left the labor force since December 2012, indicating that more people have dropped out of the job search. But the labor force is higher than it was in June 2008, when South Carolina’s jobless rate was 6.3 percent, just before it began rising sharply. The rate peaked in late 2009 and early 2010 at 11.9 percent.
College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner cautioned that while the unemployment rate is good, it is a bit deflated by seasonal adjustments and folks giving up on finding jobs.
Hefner added that despite the caveats, 6.6 percent “is a great number. We’re still chugging along.” And he noted that the 1.9 percent growth rate “is not fantastic, but not bad for the state of South Carolina on the average. It would be nice to see more people entering the job market.”
USC economist Joseph Von Nessen said that the 6.6 percent rate in December reflected a healthy Christmas shopping season which saw sales rise 3.4 percent over 2012. That resulted in more people finding work around the holidays even though that employment was seasonal.
“We opened out presents last year and Santa brought us jobs,” he said.
The unemployment rate in all but three of South Carolina’s 46 counties stayed level or dropped from November to December. Lexington County had the lowest jobless rate at 4.9 percent. Allendale had the highest at 14.3 percent.
Jobless rate dropping
Nov. 2013: 7.1%
Dec. 2013: 6.6%
Columbia metro area
Nov. 2013: 5.9%
Dec. 2013: 5.5%
Nov. 2013: 6.2%
Dec. 2013: 5.9%
Nov. 2013: 5.2%
Dec. 2013: 4.9%
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce