Hiring increases: Spurt added 9,000 workers to payrolls in state in Dec.

Janise Boatwright holds her 5-month old daughter, Rhilynn Rose, as she waits to file an extension for her jobless benefits at an unemployment office in Columbia. Boatwright is one of about 232,000 South Carolinians who want work but can't find it.

When a Mount Pleasant staffing firm hired Lindsey Andrews in early December, her bosses warned that the first few weeks might be a little slow.

They were wrong.

"Things immediately picked up," said Andrews, who watched a statewide labor market trend unfold as the office's phones rang with companies seeking more temporary help.

Every sector of South Carolina's economy hired more workers last month, adding a total of 9,000 employees to payrolls across the state. While the spurt of hiring didn't lead to a noticeable change the state's unemployment rate that month, that measure gradually stabilized throughout the end of the year.

The state's jobless rate ticked up a notch to 10.7 percent during December, an increase likely caused by a growing number of residents who recently decided to start looking for work. November's rate was announced at 10.6 percent, while the nationwide rate last month fell to 9.4 percent.

By some measures, South Carolina still posts grim labor market numbers: Roughly 232,000 South Carolina residents want work but can't find it, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. And about 111,000 out-of-work residents are still drawing weekly unemployment benefits.

But only South Carolina and Idaho recorded noticeably large job growth during December. More than half that hiring was recorded in a catchall category called professional and business services, which includes temporary agencies.

"People are preparing for something," said Gary Plyler, who runs the Charleston division of Augusta-based staffing firm MAU. "They've got a good feeling about this year."

Plyler, who also noticed a busy December, said some companies dipped into coffers they had closely guarded throughout much of last year to hire additional workers.

Other employers were encouraged either by the overall growing sense of consumer confidence --that indicator hit an eight-month high in January, according to a report released Tuesday -- or by increases at their own businesses.

"So many people were budgeting for a very harsh economy, and there seems to be some traction now," he said.

Neil Whitman, president of Dunhill Staffing Systems of Mount Pleasant, said his firm took calls from a range of businesses, such as catering companies that needed help with holiday parties, a property maintenance company that needed someone to tidy up busy shopping malls, a doctor's office that needed an administrative assistant.

One local distribution company decided to start a spring project earlier in the year, asking the firm to supply 50 workers.

"I don't understand the psychology of all this but ... we were busy all the way up through the week before Christmas, which is typically slow," said Whitman, a 30-year industry veteran.

As for the job growth outside of temporary staffing area, figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that account for seasonal swings show across-the-board growth in every category: 400 jobs in construction, 200 jobs in manufacturing, 400 jobs in transportation- and utility-related fields, 700 jobs in financial services, 1,300 jobs in tourism, 500 jobs in government and 1,000 jobs in education and health services.

Hiring workers late in a calendar year is unusual, said Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Most companies are preoccupied with holiday celebrations, year-end bookkeeping and ensuring they don't go over budget. Retailers that hired seasonal workers are usually thinking of how they'll shed the extra workforce by that time of year.

Graham couldn't pinpoint the source of the private sector growth but offered some theories. Maybe the election results put them at ease or their optimism finally reached a tipping point, she said.

"I'm really scratching my head," Graham said. "I can't wait to see what happens next month."

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549.