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SC tied with Utah for the lowest jobless rate in the US

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New job estimates from December show South Carolina reached a new record high for the number of people working in the state.  File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

The number of people employed in South Carolina's tightening labor market hit a new high last month, pushing the state's jobless rate into a tie for the lowest in the nation, according to the latest workforce survey

More than 2.3 million workers had jobs in December, an increase of more than 70,000 from a year earlier and an estimated jump of nearly 5,000 from November, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce said Friday. 

The biggest gains were in the construction, hospitality, trade, transportation and utility-related industries. 

The increases helped lower the statewide unemployment rate to a nationwide low of 2.3 percent, which matched only by Utah. The U.S. unemployment rate held steady at 3.5 percent.

Not all industries in South Carolina reported an uptick in jobs. The state's manufacturing sector was estimated to have lost roughly 600 positions jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis last month.

But the slight decline wasn't enough to erase the sizable gains the industry logged for the entire year. Unlike neighboring states and other parts of the country, South Carolina added 5,400 manufacturing jobs in 2019 from 2018. 

"In terms of manufacturing, South Carolina continues to outpace the rest of the United States pretty significantly," said Laura Ullrich, a regional economist the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. "South Carolina is a bit of an outlier." 

The historically low unemployment rate doesn't mean that everyone who wants a job can find one. South Carolina's labor force participation rate is below the national average. That means roughly 1.6 million residents who are likely capable of joining the workforce are no longer searching for jobs. 

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"It'd be silly to assume that everyone who needs a job has a job," Ullrich said. 

While rural parts of South Carolina are better off than they were following the last recession a decade ago, they are still dealing with higher rates of unemployment than urban areas, such as Charleston, Columbia and Greenvill,e Ullrich said. 

Most of the state's major metro areas continue to see the fastest economic growth. And employers in those areas are finding it increasingly difficult to fill jobs, especially for skilled positions, Ullrich said. 

If the unemployment rate remains this low, she said, it will become even more critical for unemployed people to get the education and skills they need to fill the vacancies, which now total about 60,000, according to state figures. 

Otherwise, the tight labor market could become a drag on the economy. 

"The thing we need to be thinking about is how to get the people off the sidelines and into the labor force," Ullrich said. "How do we get them the skills needed to be employable? You have to provide them with some additional training and support, whether that comes from the employers or whether its a government agency them giving some job training." 

Dan Ellzey, the executive director of the Department of Employment and Workforce, said his agency is starting a pilot program that will target joblessness in rural counties.

"Our rural initiative seeks to locate unemployed individuals in an area, train them if necessary, and connect them with local employers," he said in statement. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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