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Workers with Beazer Homes work on new construction in Mount Pleasant. Some homebuilders in the state have struggled to find enough workers to keep up with projects. File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

Steven Mungo has gone through the booms and busts of the homebuilding industry for decades in South Carolina as CEO of Mungo Homes.

But he's never seen it so hard to hire and retain workers to keep the company's projects across the state on budget and moving forward.

One of the builder's subcontractors recently filed to back out of a contract for its work, saying it could no longer meet the requirements, in part, because of not finding enough reliable workers.

"Not a day goes by when the problem doesn't manifest itself," Mungo said.

Finding and affording workers has become a challenge for numerous industries across the state, slowing economic growth that would otherwise be rising even higher, according to University of South Carolina research economist Joey Von Nessen.

That means frustration and price increases for many businesses but also a strong market for workers who want to get a boost in pay, even including big sign-up bonuses in some blue-collar trades such as trucking.

South Carolina has been posting economic growth of about 2 percent, but that number cannot go higher because of the challenge of hiring workers in 2019.

"The labor shortage is definitely a bottleneck on our growth," Von Nessen said. 

The state's unemployment rate is 3.4 percent — below what most economists consider the level of full employment when everyone who wants one can get a job. Many urban labor markets are even tighter, with the Charleston area posting an unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent, metro Greenville at 2.7 percent and Columbia at 2.8 percent.

Even rural counties that once suffered from double-digit unemployment have been helped by the economy's growth, such as Allendale County with a rate that has come down to 5.5 percent.

The demand is so strong for workers that those with challenges to keeping employment, such as transportation or child-care issues, are finding that companies will accommodate their needs, said Dorothy Weaver, communications director for the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

Overall, about 2.28 million South Carolinians were working in April, which is more than 200,000 above the pre-recession peak in January 2008.

Wages have begun to climb as demand for workers has risen. Wages started to go up in 2015 after lagging behind the economic recovery in the first part of the decade, Von Nessen said, but have picked up since then.

Wages rose on average at a 2.1 percent rate in 2015, rising to 3.7 percent in 2018 and to 4 percent so far this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To find workers with in-demand skills, companies in fields such as trucking and the heating and air conditioning industry are resorting to sign-on bonuses, often thousands of dollars. Sign-on bonuses, often offered by regional or national carriers, have been present in trucking for a while, but now the money is mounting for drivers and diesel technicians, said Rick Todd, CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association.

"Finding ready, willing and able workers is a major challenge," Todd said.

Advertised sign-on bonuses of $10,000 are not hard to find. Companies use those bonuses not only to lure workers from other employers but to retain those they have signed by paying out the bonus over time, Todd said. 

The strong economy means more trucks on the roads to deliver goods, but young workers are not joining the field fast enough to replace those who are leaving, Todd said. Close to one half of all holders of commercial drivers licenses are in their 50s, Todd said, meaning they are looking to get off the road.

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The change means plenty of work for younger people, who won't be replaced by self-driving vehicles anytime soon, he said.

"Driver assist technology is not driverless technology," Todd said.

Society has overemphasized the need for a four-year college degree, meaning that jobs that pay well in skilled trades are left wanting, Todd said.

"We've all kind of collectively dropped the ball," he said. "Now it's catching up with us."

The state will continue to work to match young people to the jobs that are out there, many of which don't require a four-year degree, said Ted Pitts, head of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has supported the launch of a state initiative called "Be Pro Be Proud," first used in Arkansas to encourage young people to consider skilled trades for their careers. A semi-trailer with interactive displays will tour sites in the state so that middle and high school students can get a taste of work in such fields as construction and trucking.

The state's hot economy continues to attract more people to move here, and that will go some way toward alleviating the labor crunch, said Scott Baier, chair of the John E. Walker Department of Economics at Clemson University.

"This continues to be a place where folks want to relocate," Baier said.

Baier and Pitts see in-migration and rising wages as ways the state will keep up strong growth even amid a crunch in workers. Pitts believes the state has the economic assets to continue to attract big new investment even as it addresses its labor challenges.

"It's a great problem to have, really," Pitts said. 

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikefittsat140

Mike Fitts is a veteran South Carolina journalist who covers business from Columbia.