John A. Carlos II

Former V.C. Summer workers Ronnie Strickland, left, and David Cox chat outside Gill's Exxon in Jenkinsville, days after work was halted on the nuclear power plant. Rural Fairfield County saw its unemployment rate soar in August, and the Columbia area's job gains were wiped out after one of the largest layoffs in recent memory. File/John Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Unemployment in South Carolina inched up and job growth chugged along in August, even as the state's labor market absorbed thousands of construction industry layoffs from the scuttled V.C. Summer nuclear project.

The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce said Friday that joblessness rose to 4 percent last month. That compares to 3.9 percent in July, but it keeps the state near its lowest unemployment rate since 2000.

The August jobs report was the first since the utilities SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper walked away from two partially built nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. The decision to pull the plug on the $9 billion project led to the largest and most abrupt layoffs in recent memory, eliminating thousands of jobs in one July afternoon.

The effect of the layoffs, which included about 5,000 construction workers, was apparent in the latest reading on the state's economy: Across South Carolina, the construction industry shed 2,700 employees in August, and it was in negative territory for the year despite a building boom stretching from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.

In Fairfield County, about 30 miles north of Columbia, the unemployment rate jumped to 8.9 percent in August, an increase of nearly three percentage points in one month and the second-highest rate in the state. The county is one of the state's smallest, with fewer than 25,000 residents, and its leaders say its fortunes depended largely on the nuclear plant.

The layoffs also appeared to wipe out the Columbia area's job gains for the year, leaving the Midlands with the lowest growth of any metropolitan area in the state.

Nuclear layoffs graph

The pace of annual job growth plunged in August from about 1 percent to essentially zero in the wake of the V.C. Summer layoffs, new data show.

But statewide, those losses were offset by gains elsewhere, and overall, South Carolina added 6,200 jobs last month after adjusting for seasonal patterns. The state was boosted by hiring in professional services, which added 5,500 positions; the public sector, which added 1,700; and health services, which added 1,000.

"This past month, I’ve seen how truly blessed South Carolina is to have a robust and growing economy," said Cheryl Stanton, the workforce agency's director, in a statement. "After receiving the devastating news of the V.C. Summer nuclear facility closure that resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs, our business community came together and provided opportunities to many of the affected workers."

August job growth

Annual job growth in the Columbia area plunged to virtually zero after the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion was canceled. Thousands were laid off, pushing the Midlands to the lowest growth in the state.

Figures adjusted for seasonal hiring patterns. Source: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce

Metro area Annual job gains Percentage growth
Charleston 6,500 1.9%
Columbia -300 -0.1%
Florence 1,700 1.9%
Greenville 6,700 1.6%
Myrtle Beach 1,400 0.9%
Spartanburg 3,800 2.6%
Sumter 200 0.5%
South Carolina 35,600 1.7%
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Still, the long-term effect of the project's cancellation remains to be seen. Layoffs were still pending for hundreds of workers when the job survey was conducted last month, and economists caution that employment data can be noisy at the state level, a snapshot in time that doesn't always tell the full story.

But the August report suggests that the impact of the layoffs was muted by the state's otherwise robust labor market. Before the decision, the state's unemployment was already hovering near its lowest rate since the turn of century, and employers have struggled to find enough workers.

"Over the year, almost every industry, with the exception of construction, is up, and it's a fairly solid report from the demand side," said Rick Kaglic, a Charlotte-based economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. "Overall, a very healthy report."

Trouble recruiting workers has dragged on the state's job growth throughout much of the year. After outpacing the national average through much of the recovery, South Carolina has fallen into line in recent months. Over the year, payrolls in South Carolina grew by 1.7 percent, slightly ahead of the national average.

Even so, surveys of employers point to continued demand, and labor shortages have been especially pronounced in the construction business after a painful recession scared workers away before a robust building boom would create a glut of jobs.

"We've heard a lot about shortages of workers in the construction industry," Kaglic said. "I think that should help ease the pain for many of these workers."

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.