Jobless rate drops below 8 percent, lowest in five years

South Carolina’s job market brightened in September as the state continues to slowly emerge from a devastating recession.

The state’s jobless rate dropped to a five-year low of 7.9 percent from 8.1 percent in August, a S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce report showed Friday.

The last time the unemployment rate was below 8 percent in the state was September 2008, just as the Great Recession began to rage in South Carolina, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unemployment rate was released without any background data – such as the number of people in the work force and the number of unemployed. That kind of data, which usually accompanies the monthly report, offers insight into why the rate is dropping. The report was delayed because of the federal government shutdown in the first half of October.

While it’s hard to know without the supporting data, the drop is likely “due to the leisure and hospitality industry that’s been doing really well over the last year,” said Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina.

“That’s a good thing because it means consumers are more willing to spend,” he said. “Confidence is up.”

The downside, of course, is that workers likely are taking lower paying and part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels to make ends meet.

“The wage levels for leisure and hospitality tend to be below the state average,” Von Nessen said. “That’s one of the downsides.”

Another contributing factor to the rate decline likely was a traditional increase in education jobs as school got under way for the year, Von Nessen said.

Supporting data – including county-level statistics – and the unemployment rate for October are set to be released Nov. 22, the workforce department said Friday. Nationally, the September unemployment rate increased slightly to 7.3 percent from 7.2 percent in August.

“South Carolina’s unemployment rate is now at a five year low but we want it even lower and will continue doing everything possible to make that happen,” Gov. Nikki Haley said in a statement.

The rate dropping below 8 percent should provide a psychological boost to those who have dropped out of the job search, Von Nessen said.

“As it comes down, more people who are unemployed will see that the economy is getting better and maybe they can get out there and start looking for work,” he said. “A lot of people have dropped out of the labor force.”

More than 1,500 people showed up Friday for a job fair in Columbia, seeking employment. Jobs are a major issue in the state – particularly in rural areas, which were hit hardest by the recession. Jobs will be a major issue in next year’s governor’s race.

The jobless rate is down a full percentage point from September 2012, when it was 8.9 percent. That was the first time it had dropped below 9 percent since November 2008. The rate has been falling steadily since peaking at almost 12 percent in January 2010. It has been stuck at around 8 percent since April.

“We’ve had steady increases in job growth for close to three years now,” Von Nessen said. “We’re continuing to march ahead.”