South Carolina unemployment rate drops for eighth consecutive month, now at 8.9 percent

Leisure and hospitality accounted for about half of the job gains for the state. Bellman Tim Shilstone helps a visitor check into the Francis Marion Hotel on Friday April 20, 2012. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

South Carolina's unemployment rate dropped to 8.9 percent in March, the lowest in three years, suggesting a gradual economic recovery is continuing.

Unemployment dropped in every county, and among the state's metropolitan areas, Charleston and Greenville had the lowest rates of joblessness.

“When you're seeing employment increases across the board, that's very encouraging,” said Frank Hefner, director of the College of Charleston's Office of Economic Analysis. “I think this is a slow recovery, but clearly a recovery.”

While the statewide unemployment rate remained higher than the nation's, Palmetto State joblessness has been declining for eight consecutive months.

Leisure and hospitality jobs accounted for nearly half the job gains from February to March, reflecting a pickup in South Carolina travel and tourism, but over the past year manufacturing has accounted for the largest increase in jobs.

“We don't know what will happen through 2012, but the first three months came in like a lion,” said Douglas P. Woodward, director of the University of South Carolina's Division of Research and professor of economics at the Darla Moore School of Business.

Woodward said the state's unemployment rate had been expected to remain above 9 percent this year.

“If we had construction in there adding more jobs — we can never have a vigorous recovery without construction,” he said. “At least the other sectors are doing well.”

South Carolina gained a few hundred construction jobs in March, but construction employment has declined by more than 3 percent over the past year, the state Department of Employment and Workforce reported.

“Our state hasn't experienced an unemployment rate less than 9 percent since 2008, and we are excited that this means unemployed South Carolinians are finding jobs.” said Abraham J. Turner, the agency's executive director.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment was little changed at 8.2 percent last month, while the rate in South Carolina and 29 other states dipped.

Southern states showed the largest employment gains, while the Midwest continued to have the lowest unemployment rate.

“I attribute a portion of this reduced unemployment to the national growth trends,” said Donald Sparks, an economics professor at The Citadel. “Now we must resist the temptation to recklessly cut state spending in essential public service areas such as health and education, as these sectors are vital to our longer term continued success.”

A year ago the state's unemployment rate stood at 10.4 percent. It had fallen to 9.3 percent by January, then dipped to 9.1 percent the following month.

Joblessness in South Carolina varies tremendously from county to county.

Some hard-hit rural counties had jobless rates of 15 percent or more in March, while urban areas fared much better. Charleston and Dorchester were among four counties with unemployment rates at or below 7 percent. Berkeley County's jobless rate was 7.7 percent.