The South Carolina unemployment rate is still in double digits, but for the third straight month, it moved in the right direction -- down.

The jobless rate fell to 11.6 percent in April, a noticeable decline from 12.2 percent the previous month, as businesses hired workers and fewer residents entered the labor force.

The figures mark the first time the rate has descended below 12 percent since June, further signaling that the state's economy has begun recovering from a severe slump.

South Carolina posted the largest monthly rate decline of all 50 states; however, the state still has the nation's sixth-highest rate.

"There's no question that South Carolina's economy has turned a corner

... but we've got a long way to go," said Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, who pinned the fall on job growth and a decrease in the number of people looking for work. "It's still near historic highs."

The Charleston region's jobless rate tumbled to 8.5 percent, down from 9.6 percent from the previous month. Statistics from the recently renamed S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce show the most robust local hiring happened in hospitality, the public sector and in professional and business services.

Mary Graham, senior vice president of public policy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that Charleston's economy typically strengthens during the warmer months when tourists flock to local beaches and the city's historic heart. But she said that even non-seasonal businesses have reported an uptick in business.

"Financial services, information jobs ... even retail trade bumped up a little bit," she said. "It's just another indicator of the momentum that's building."

Hiring among local businesses is small and cautious. SIG Supply, a plumbing, lighting and hardware store on Upper King Street, chipped away at the region's unemployment problem after owner Mills Hawkins hired three friends.

"I needed the help," he said.

More than half of the roughly 3,700 jobs added in Charleston last month were related to tourism. When those numbers are adjusted to take out seasonal swings, it shows that the hospitality sector gained statewide jobs for the first time since July.

The Embassy Suites hotel on Meeting Street, for example, recently hired five more employees to staff the front desk and bellhop positions to keep up with the busy tourist season's pace. General Manager Donna Ford said the economic recovery could feed off itself as more residents get jobs and begin buying again.

"The decrease in the unemployment rate will mean that people will have more money to spend," she said.

Downtown employee Jill Maynard, who works in an office on East Bay Street, said she's noticed more clusters of tourists crowding the city's sidewalks. And as director of employee development for Maverick Southern Kitchens hospitality group, she knows more people are dining and drinking in the area's restaurants.

"It's just droves of people crossing the streets and eating in restaurants and walking around in shops," she said.

Federal government hiring picked up last month as U.S. Census efforts hit the worker-intensive phase of knocking on doors of non-responsive homes. And despite tight budgets, county officials continue to hire high-level jobs and crucial positions in public safety.

Almost half the positions posted on the Trident One Stop Career Center's jobs hiring list are in the public sector, ranging from police officers to technical support workers to recreational department outreach.

Roughly a third of the 20 Charleston County workers hired since April 1 have been in public safety, said Human Resources Director Fagan Stackhouse. County officials outside of that department have to go to great lengths to hire an employee, taking measures such as running a cost-benefit analysis and formally proposing a hire to a committee.

"We've been very, very strict," said Stackhouse, who was one of those recent hires after a nine-month wait.

Dorchester County has also held off on staffing some vacant, non-emergency jobs.

"We've got five positions we're not filling right now," said County Administrator Jason Ward, whose agency employs about 700 workers. "If the budget passes the way it is, we're not going to fill them next year either."

Reporter Derek Legette contributed to this report. Reach Katy Stech at kstech@postandcourier.com or 937-5549.