When Tevin Workman was laid off from the V.C. Summer nuclear plant construction project in December, he had little trouble finding a new job. He quickly landed a position with Columbia’s Mashburn Construction, installing rebar and preparing construction sites for concrete pours.
“It wasn’t hard at all,” said Workman, 21, of Blair in Fairfield County.
Workman has noticed the job market open up substantially since he started his career four years ago at age 18.
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As South Carolinians observe the Labor Day weekend, more are discovering it’s easier to find a job. Unemployment has dropped from a high of 11.6 percent during the depths of the Great Recession in June 2009 to 6.4 percent in July. But South Carolina workers also know wages for those jobs are growing ever so slowly.
South Carolina ranked 36th in the nation in wage growth from 2013 to 2014 –expanding only 2.6 percent, according to the most recent year-to-year comparisons from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
North Dakota was first at 6.4 percent, buoyed by the rising oil shale industry. Nevada was last at 1.4 percent, with its wages tied to the service and tourism industries.
Nationally, wages in the United States increased 4.24 percent in July 2015 over the same month in the previous year. Wage growth in the United States averaged 6.33 percent from 1960 until 2015, reaching an all time high of 13.77 percent in January 1979 and a record low of -5.77 percent in March of 2009.
And today’s wages might not take off anytime soon, said Frank Hefner, a College of Charleston economist, especially in South Carolina, where most jobs are tied to service industries, manufacturing and tourism.
“Wages have not been going up because we still have slack – unemployment – in the labor markets in general,” he said. “In some specific fields, compensation packages have increased quite a bit, but those are small in number and concentrated in select industries such as high tech. We won’t see wage pressure in general until we see inflation. But that’s a classic double-edged sword: Wages will increase just as prices are.”
But while raises tied to cost of living won’t increase until inflation increases, the low rate – now at 0.2 percent – makes the paycheck go farther, said University of South Carolina economist Joey Von Nessen.
“Wage growth has been slow overall,” he said. “But less of those wages are being eaten up” by rising prices.
Construction wages growing faster
Despite the slow growth generally, construction workers like Workman are more likely to see a pay increase in the Palmetto State than are people in other occupations.
Statistics show that construction wages rose 3.3 percent from 2013 to 2014, as the housing market improved and as businesses felt more comfortable expanding their operations and opening new plants. A quick drive around downtown Columbia is evidence of that.
Workman, for example, was preparing the foundation for a new Aloft hotel – one of five hotels that are planned, being built or have recently been completed downtown.
“Look at how many sites there are like this,” said Farrell Smith, the general superintendent of the Aloft project. “Owners aren’t afraid to build anymore.”
Wages in South Carolina’s wholesale trade sectors also grew by 3.3 percent, statistics show. Wholesale trade refers to business- to-business transactions, such as suppliers to large manufacturing firms.
Those wages are being driven by the state’s well-established and growing automotive industry, and its quickly emerging aerospace industry. But Hefner noted that wages in manufacturing are tied to productivity in a low-inflation environment.
“And manufacturing is pretty lean as it is,” he said. “We have good productivity.”
Personal income growth
On a brighter note, if you don’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck, South Carolina is a good place to be.
The state ranks sixth nationally in personal income growth, a measurement that includes all forms of income such as wages, stocks, bonds and retirement income.
Personal income grew 5.2 percent in South Carolina, which led the Southeast. Florida was second in the region and Georgia was third.
Von Nessen credited the personal income growth to the number of retirees in the state and the amount of tourist-related, income-producing rental homes along the coast.
“In South Carolina, we have a higher number of retirees than many other states – a more elderly population and a large number of military retirees,” he said. “And when you have an older population, they are going to have a higher level of income.”
But personal income doesn’t translate into higher wages for blue-collar workers. And for now, Workman, who said he feels secure in his employment but is making less money than he did with the nuclear plant, is being conservative with his spending.
“I want to save up a little,” he said. “I’m in no rush.”