S.C. jobless rate falls as hiring ramps up

krupon@thestate.comMarch 29, 2013 

  • Why we feel better • Retirement accounts: The stock market has reached historic highs in the past few weeks, pushing past levels last seen before the recession and restoring investors’ retirement accounts. • Housing: The real estate markets in Columbia and South Carolina have made steady gains in the past 18 months. Sales and home building are up and inventory is down, returning housing to more normal levels. Home prices also are beginning to stabilize.

    Jobs: South Carolina has the highest employment levels in four and a half years. As a result, consumers are feeling more confident and spending more on discretionary items.

    • Gas: While gas prices remain stuck above $3 per gallon, they have been that high so long that drivers have adjusted to them, some say. They are still far from the near-$4 per gallon record levels seen a couple of years ago.

  • More information

    • Wild card:

County rates


S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce

The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a rate for Rock Hill, which is about a month behind the state’s data. The city’s unemployment rate in January was 12.7 percent.

Don Worthington

Why are we feeling better?

Having fun is back in fashion in South Carolina. A bit, at least.

Consumers are feeling better following a grueling recession that slashed household budgets – and sucked the fun out of family weekends, date nights and vacations. Retirement funds fell, jobs were lost, and paychecks shrank.

“A lot of people delayed the fun stuff,” said Frank Hefner, a College of Charleston economist. But in recent months, he has seen numerous hotels under construction and streets packed with visitors in Charleston, one of the state’s tourism hot spots. “Clearly, something’s going on in terms of visitors.”

Not everyone is feeling the fun yet. South Carolina’s unemployment rate shrank a measly tenth of a percentage point in February, taking it to a still-high 8.6 percent, according to numbers released Friday by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

Still, that’s significantly better than the 11.9 percent high reached in November 2009.

And the number of employed people grew to 1.99 million – a level not seen since August 2008, just as the recession was starting to cut into South Carolina’s economy.

But as the stock market has reached record highs in recent weeks and the housing market has made solid gains for the past 18 months, people are starting to spend again on things such as going out to dinner or a movie and trips to the beach.

As a result, the leisure and hospitality industry has boosted hiring by 10,800, a 5.36 percent increase over the past year, to more than 212,000, according to the department. That’s more than one-third of the net gain in nonfarm employment – 30,100 – in the state since February 2012.

“I am encouraged by the improvement that we are seeing in job growth,” said Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wells Fargo bank.

One caveat, he said: “Because of concerns about the Affordable Care Act, restaurants and hotels are reducing hours and hiring more part-time workers.”

Having more part-time workers – and fewer full-time workers – allows them to avoid having to pay full costs for health care under the new law in many cases, he said. That trend, at least in part, accounts for the disproportionate rise in the leisure and hospitality industry nationwide.

“(Some restaurant operators) are pretty much making sure nobody works more than 30 hours a week,” he said.

Still, there is no doubt that consumers are spending more on fun, Vitner said.

For example, Myrtle Beach hotels that had 100 percent occupancy during peak travel weeks before the recession and dropped to 70 percent in the worst of times are now at upper-90 percent levels.

In Columbia, at the downtown Hilton Hotel, which features a Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurant, business is up this year about 8percent, said general manager Tony Tam.

When disposable income increases, studies show that one of the first places people spend it is leisure, said John Durst, South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association executive director.

“For the industry to see this kind of bump in jobs at this point in the year is an extremely positive indicator,” Durst said. “We are very optimistic that the trend is something that’s going to continue.”

For people who are seeing an increase in income and deciding whether they should add a couple of thousand dollars to a retirement account or take the family to Disney World, they’re choosing Disney, Hefner said.

“The recession was such a deep one for so many people,” he said, and they are tired of sitting at home.

Beyond leisure and hospitality, many sectors of the state’s workforce saw strong job gains over the past year.

The finance sector has gained 3,300 jobs, a 3.41 percent increase, over the past year.

And construction gained 2,500 jobs, a 3.28percent increase, as home building and construction activity picks up.

While many of those job gains were on the coast – South Carolina’s prime tourism destination – Columbia, Greenville and Spartanburg also saw significant job gains.

Of the more than 30,000 total jobs added in the state over the past year, Myrtle Beach and Charleston combined accounted for 7,700. Columbia added 3,400.

Rural areas, hardest hit by the recession, saw few job gains.

Still, all but two counties saw unemployment rates decline in February.

“That’s a pretty good sign,” Hefner said.

“Life looks a little better now.”

Reporter Roddie Burris contributed.

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