Jenny McCullough of Columbia needed a part-time job to help her offset expenses when she starts attending Midlands Technical College in January.
The 19-year-old was a bit concerned that finding the right fit would be difficult, given the state of the economy over the past few years. A harsh recession saw the state’s unemployment rolls swell in 2008-2010, and the recovery has been slow and rocky.
But after only one month of looking and four or five applications, McCullough landed a job as a cashier at Lizard’s Thicket on Beltline Boulevard just a few steps from her school and about 2 miles from her apartment.
“It was easy,” she said. “I was surprised.”
More people like McCullough entered the job search in South Carolina in November as the number of state residents who are working reached another record high, according to a report from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce Friday. As job seekers have flooded the market, the state’s unemployment rate remained unchanged from October at 6.7 percent.
The national unemployment rate also was unchanged at 5.8 percent.
It is the third month in a row that the workforce in South Carolina reached historic highs and job creation kept up with people entering the job market.
“These are the twin gains that we want to see,” University of South Carolina economist Joseph Von Nessen said. “Workers are more optimistic. They are seeing more opportunity. That builds momentum going into 2015.
And for the first time since the recent recession and its painfully slow recovery, leisure and hospitality has overtaken manufacturing in creating jobs, as an improving economy and low gas prices mean more people have more money for eating out, vacations and weekend getaways. Gas prices have dropped well below $3 a gallon in recent months nationwide and are approaching $2 a gallon in South Carolina.
As a result, restaurants like Lizard’s Thicket are bringing in more workers.
“Our business is better than ever,” chief executive Bobby Williams said.
But there is a cloud to this silver lining.
Many of those workers, like McCullough, are being hired for less than 30 hours a week, as employers duck having to provide health insurance in accordance with the Affordable Care Act. And that means thinner paychecks for workers, some of whom have to work more than one job to earn a living.
“Every restaurant is going to less than 30 (hours),” Williams said.
The number of people working reached 2,051,511 in November, while the labor force expanded by 5,563 people to an all-time high of 2,197,756. It was the fifth straight month that the labor force rose. The number of unemployed people in the state decreased slightly by 345 people to 146,245.
Over the past year:
• An estimated 28,659 people in the state have found work, and the labor force has increased by 27,592, the report showed.
• Professional and business services, which includes temporary workers, saw the biggest gain, growing 6.5 percent by 16,800 people.
• Leisure and hospitality also saw solid increases, growing 4.3 percent by 10,300 workers.
• Manufacturing, which helped lead South Carolina into the economic recovery, had a solid 3.5 percent growth rate over the year, growing by 8,200 people, but its growth has been slowing in recent months.
John Durst, chief executive of the South Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association, said he expects more jobs to be created in the hospitality industry going forward.
In addition to consumers feeling more comfortable spending on luxuries, falling gas prices bode well for South Carolina’s tourism industry, as more people head for getaways to the beach or mountains.
“We are very bullish about the fact that more people are coming into South Carolina. But South Carolinians are also spending more in the state, enjoying our restaurants, enjoying our hotels,” Durst said.
Because the state is a tourist destination, falling gas price “affects us disproportionally, in a good way,” Von Nessen added.
Lexington County tied Greenville and Saluda counties for the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 5.2 percent. Richland County’s rate was 6.3 percent. Marion County had the highest rate at 11.6 percent.