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SC's unemployment rate is lower than it's ever been, but labor participation lags

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Manufacturing was second to leisure and hospitality as the sector that had the most job growth in South Carolina in the past year. Since November 2018, about 6,700 manufacturing jobs were added. File/Staff

South Carolina's jobless rate is the lowest its ever been, but the employee-friendly market hasn't pulled enough workers off the sidelines to meet the demand. 

The unemployment figure for the state dropped again, slipping to 2.4 percent in November, according to data released Friday by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

South Carolina now has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country, tied with Utah and just behind Vermont's 2.3 percent. 

The November number marked the third consecutive historic low for the state's jobless rate, which dropped to 2.9 percent and 2.6 percent in September and October, respectively.

South Carolina's problem today is the opposite of what the state faced during the recession, said Dan Ellzey, executive director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

At that time, when the percentage of unemployed workers reached double digits, the agency was trying to help people find jobs. Now, it's spending the bulk of its time trying to find workers to fill vacancies. 

South Carolina has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the country, at about 58 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The same figure for the vast majority of states is above 60 percent, and the national average is about 63 percent.

"Labor participation rate is, in my mind, at least equally as important as the unemployment rate," Ellzey said. 

These individuals are considered to be on the "sidelines" of the labor market: of working age, not in prison, not working and not looking for work.

There are close to twice as many job openings in South Carolina as there are workers who are unemployed, according to state and federal data. 

In November, there were around 58,000 unemployed individuals — people who don't have jobs but are actively looking — statewide. In the same time frame, there were almost 113,800 job listings online. 

Charleston County had the most online listings in November, more than 18,500, and the Charleston metro area also has the lowest unemployment in the state. 

Jobless data broken down by metro area, which is always one month behind the statewide figures, showed an unemployment rate of 1.8 percent for the Charleston area, which is slightly higher than September's figures but still among the lowest in the country. 

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The Greenville, Hilton Head and Spartanburg areas all had jobless rates of 1.9 percent in October.

Laura Ullrich, a regional economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said that, while job seekers usually benefit from a lower unemployment rate, it can "constrain growth" if the labor pool isn't deep enough to fill new jobs. 

In the last year, almost every job sector in South Carolina has grown. Leisure and hospitality led the way with the addition of 9,600 jobs since last November. The sector has grown nationwide, too, but at a rate of about 2.5 percent compared to South Carolina's 3.7 percent. 

Manufacturing followed behind with the addition of 6,700 jobs, and both the government and education and health segments added more than 5,000 jobs apiece. 

The labor force in South Carolina is also "growing considerably," Ullrich said. About 52,000 people have joined the ranks of workers in the state over the past 12 months. 

"I do think much of this growth is in-migration," Ullrich said, referring to the tens of thousands of people moving to South Carolina from other states.

It's been "very common," Ullrich said, for South Carolina employers to say they're struggling to find workers. 

If just 10 percent of the people on the sidelines were lured into the labor market, that would have a "huge impact" on the state and its employers, Ellzey said. 

Ellzey said his department is employing a variety of tactics to lure workers off the sidelines through job-training programs, services such as its SC Works offices and partnerships with employers.

A new pilot program with an employer in Spartanburg, for example, is testing a four-hour part-time shift in the evenings that pays $21 an hour, which Ellzey said seems to be the "magic number" when it comes to attracting applicants. 

"We are making a personal appeal to everyone on the sidelines," Ellzey said. "Apply today."  

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.

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