The drop in South Carolina's jobless rate into the single digits for the first time in more than two years is a positive sign for the state's long-struggling job market, economists said Tuesday.
But the numbers driving the dip in unemployment - to 9.9 percent in March - show the state has a long way to go before recovering the thousands of jobs lost during the three-year economic downturn, experts said.
Regionally, York, Chester and Lancaster counties saw their unemployment rates continue to decline.
York saw the largest drop, 2.1 percentage points to 12.9 percent. The last time York's rate dipped below 13 percent was in August 2009 when the rate was 12.9 percent.
Lancaster County saw a 1.5 percentage point drop to 13.4 percent, placing it 10th highest in the state out of 46 counties. Lancaster's rate has been over 14 percent since December 2008.
Chester County's rate fell by 0.7 of a percentage point to 16.1 percent. Chester had the third-highest jobless rate in the state. The last time Chester's rate was less than 16 percent was in November, 2008 when it was 13.2 percent. Chester's rate has been in double digits since April 2008. The rate was 9.7 percent that month.
Rock Hill numbers are provided the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal figures usually are a month behind the county data. Rock Hill's preliminary unemployment rate for February was 15.2 percent, down 17.2 percent from in January.
South Carolina's labor force - the number of people working or looking for work - has fallen this year, according to seasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Labor Department.
While the state has added nearly 11,100 jobs this year, the number of people who say they are unemployed has dropped by more than 23,500.
Than means nearly12,500 workers have dropped out of the labor market, economists said, because they were discouraged after failing to find a job, decided to move out of the state or stopped getting unemployment benefits.
"This is not a reflection of a bright employment picture," said Rick Kaglic, a regional economist at the Charlotte branch of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank. "The labor market is getting healthier but is not healthy yet."
The state's unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in March, down from 10.2 percent in February and 11.5 percent a year ago, the U.S. Labor Department reported. The national unemployment rate was 8.8 percent in March.
Gains in tourism-related and retail work helped bolster March's job numbers.
South Carolina's jobless rate had not been in single digits since January 2009, when the unemployment rate also was 9.9 percent. The jobless rate peaked at 11.8 percent in December 2009.
The state unveiled the monthly unemployment numbers five hours later than normal Tuesday so Gov. Nikki Haley could announce them at a news conference at a Columbia auto repair shop. The data were available from the federal government several hours before Haley took much of the credit for the falling jobless rate.
"This is because I'm working myself to pieces," said Haley, who took office 98 days ago. "The states that do the best are going to be the one's with the most aggressive governors."
She dismissed concerns the jobless data show new jobs have not kept pace with those leaving the job market.
"We're in single digits," Haley said. "You can paint it any way you want, but that's a good thing for South Carolina."
While having a single-digit unemployment rate is good psychologically, USC economist Doug Woodward called the state's job picture: "B "better than anemic and less than robust."
Woodward's forecasts did not anticipate a drop in unemployment because usually three years into a poor economy job applicants start to look for work again, which temporarily pushes up the jobless rate.
"This is not normal," he said.
The Richmond Fed's Kaglic said the state is hurting more than the nation as a whole because of its reliance on manufacturing and construction work.