South Carolina's jobless rate eased to 12.2 percent last month after employers, for the fifth straight month, gradually added a few more workers to their staffs.

After hovering near historic highs since late last year, the statewide unemployment rate reflected a deliberate decline from 12.4 percent recorded during February, according to new data from the S.C. Employment Security Commission.

The Charleston area rate fell to 9.8 percent from 10.4 percent the previous month. Each local county's jobless rate improved: Berkeley's dropped from 11.1 percent to 10.5 percent; Dorchester from 10.4 percent to 9.8 percent; and Charleston from 10.1 percent to 9.4 percent.

And U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics numbers show the return of something the South Carolina economy hasn't seen consistently for three years: job growth.

"We're starting down a long road towards regaining our level of employment," said Coastal Carolina University research economist Don Schunk.

Slowly, the national economy is starting to replace a small portion of jobs that were lost as consumers stopped spending money and employers slashed jobs in the wake of the financial crisis. Thirty-seven other states reported a similar hiring uptick last month, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Gary Plyler of MAU, an Augusta-based work force solutions agency, said he's hearing a return of confidence from employers.

Charleston-area companies of all sizes have called his agency in recent weeks looking to pad their staffs with a few extra workers, sometimes by adding an administrative position or warehouse job. At the least, small-business owners are formulating a hiring plan for the future, Plyler said.

"The mood and tone is much more upbeat," he said, recalling a recent conversation with a small Charleston manufacturing company that had seen a surge in orders. "Now the conversation is, 'Things came back in a hurry. We now have a forecast that's not just a hope and a prayer.' "

The manufacturer ultimately decided to hire "a handful" of more workers, he said.

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The hiring will help the South Carolina economy chip away at the massive job loss that occurred since employment peaked in September 2007 with 1,951,200 jobs. Last month, only 1,818,200 South Carolina residents were working, a difference of 133,000 jobs.

At the current pace of hiring, it would take until 2014, by Schunk's estimate, to work up to pre-recession employment levels throughout the state.

But while the additional jobs are a welcome development for residents who finally are able to secure work, Schunk cautioned that the job growth isn't necessarily sustainable.

He said he's part of a pack of economists who think the recent job gains happened only because employers laid off too many workers during the recession. Overloaded with work, some are turning to temp agencies to help fill their ranks.

That type of panicked hiring isn't a sign of healthy, sustainable economic growth.

"It's not the kind of boost to employment that comes from true growth in the economy," he said.