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SC economists see local, state jobless figures as a 'mixed bag'

South Carolina posted its best unemployment numbers for December in three years at 9.5 percent, but some economists caution the rate does not tell the whole story.

They predict the unemployment numbers will rise in the spring as they have for the past two years.

They are also concerned that job creation is relatively flat, another indicator the state is not recovering quickly.

"It's a mixed bag," said Rick Kaglic, an economist with the Charlotte branch of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank. "Fewer unemployed is good news, the ranks are down. But job creation is slow."

According to provisional federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 300 jobs were added statewide from November to December.

"That's paltry," Kaglic said.

In the Charlotte metropolitan area, which includes Rock Hill, the federal stats show a loss of about 1,000 jobs from November to December. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data is adjusted for seasonal employment changes such as temporary hirings and plant closings.

Locally, the unemployment rate increased to 12.3 percent from 11.9 percent in York County; to 15.1 percent from 14.2 percent in Chester County; and to 13.4 percent from 12.9 percent in Lancaster County. These rates are not adjusted for seasonal changes in the economy.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for December was 8.5 percent, a two-tenths drop from November.

Rock Hill's provisional unemployment rate for November was 12.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city's unemployment rate is typically released one month after the county data.

The rates are better than December 2010.

"There is no question we are a better place nationwide and in York County than we were a year ago," said Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner.

In December 2010, the unemployment rates in York and Chester counties were 15.3 percent. The rate was 15.6 percent in Lancaster County. Rock Hill's November 2010 unemployment rate was 16.7 percent.

Vitner said the unemployment rate should continue to fall for January and February but rise in the spring.

"We have seen it happen each of the last two years," he said.

Vitner said there have been "modest gains" in the local housing industry, one of the traditional measures of the economy's health.

Scott Maxwell, president of the Home Builders Association of York County, said there has been a slight increase in construction, but it does not come close to prerecession numbers. "But any activity is welcome," he said.

Maxwell, of the Haines Maxwell Company, said the association did not have any firm numbers on new starts or employment. But he said he knew of no one adding to construction crews.

"No one is at full throttle," he said.

Charles Sowell, director of the Catawba Region for the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, also lacked specific numbers. But Sowell, who oversees operations in York, Chester and Lancaster, is "cautiously optimistic."

He said job seekers are getting interviews, something that wasn't happening three to six months ago. Companies are interviewing, even bringing people back for a second interview, Sowell said. Hiring, however, has not picked up, he said.