Chester County's unemployment rate soared past 17 percent in December, giving the county the highest jump in the state and the third-highest total percentage of jobless people.
The county's unemployment rate leaped 3.7 percentage points to bring the overall rate to 17.3 percent.
Meanwhile, York County's rate climbed to just under 10 percent and Lancaster County's rose to around 14 percent, according to data released Tuesday.
The statewide unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent, its highest point since 1983.
"The job market is very, very thin," said Zachary Booker, assistant director at the Chester Workforce Center. "I didn't know what to expect, but the numbers don't surprise me at all. ... But we're going to the best that we can to put these people to work."
The sharp spike in Chester County's unemployment rate can be blamed on at least two factors, said Karlisa Parker, the county's economic development director.
First were the closings of local plants late in last year -- including Superior Essex, Seamless Sensations and others -- that resulted in several hundred lost jobs.
But there also are around 4,600 Chester County residents who work in York, Lancaster or other nearby counties hit hard by layoffs.
"If you've done that and your job ends, you suddenly find yourself in the unemployment numbers," Parker said. "If you suffer losses anywhere in the communities where our folks are going ... then certainly, that would affect our numbers."
More than 4,000 jobs have left the county since 2002. Booker said he couldn't recall the last time the unemployment rate was this high. A year ago, the county's unemployment rate was at 10.3 percent.
Despite the staggering unemployment numbers in December, the people coming for help at the Chester Workforce Center have been mostly upbeat, Booker said.
"The morale is still pretty good, but ... everybody wants a job," he said.
The list of people in need is expanding from just former manufacturing and textile workers to include those coming from areas such as construction, nursing and day care.
"You have a different variety of folks coming in," Booker said.
'Looking for hope'
York County's unemployment rate rose 1.2 percentage points in December to settle at 9.9 percent. That's up 4 percentage points from a year ago. York County's jobless number ranks 28th out of the state's 46 counties.
And like in Chester and Lancaster, the economy hasn't discriminated.
"Some people have been working for 20 or 30 years and this has never happened to them before," said Annie Reid, director of the Rock Hill Workforce Center. "Even though they may have marketable skills, the employers are just not hiring right now."
When the jobs aren't there, all Reid and her staff can do is offer encouragement. But even that can be tough, she said.
"We don't want to give them false hope," she said. "It's very difficult for us to say the right thing."
In Lancaster County, where the jobless rate rose to 13.9 percent in December, the situation is much the same.
"It's unreal, the different companies that are cutting back and shutting down," said David Veal, assistant director of the county's unemployment office.
Many people coming to the Lancaster office are skeptical that they'll be able to find another job, Veal said.
"They're just kind of looking for hope somewhere, and we're just kind of hoping we can get some new companies in the area so we can help them get a new job," he said. "They're trying to remain positive to a point, but we don't have anything on the horizon right now."