South Carolina's jobless rate climbed slightly for the first time this year in July, but the private sector added jobs during the month, a promising sign for an economic recovery that's leaned heavily on government help so far.
The statewide unemployment rate remains stuck at stubbornly high levels -- it was 10.8 percent last month, a small uptick from June's 10.7 percent. The Charleston area's unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.3 percent with an estimated 30,977 residents out of work, according to new labor figures released Friday.
But the statewide jobs report also shows that private-sector employers began to hire more workers than they typically do during the summer.
Labor market economists raised alarms this past spring when government agencies, especially the U.S. Census Bureau, claimed responsibility for the bulk of the job growth. The state's latest numbers show a shift toward private employment growth.
"We won't have a recovery without it," said Doug Woodward, research economist with the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business. "At least, not one that's going to last."
Overall, South Carolina employers hired roughly 1,200 more workers throughout July, according to seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While the government continued to shed jobs, likely because the census' labor-intensive counting effort continues to subside, national data shows that private employers collectively added 6,700 more workers throughout July.
The state's long-ailing manufacturing sector has added more jobs than usual for three months in a row, expanding by about 3,000 workers since May.
The professional-services category, which counts jobs in a range of industries, grew by 4,800 jobs after several months of otherwise unnoticeable activity. That likely reflects an increase in temp worker staffing, which some employers rely on during periods of economic uncertainty.
A-Plus Staffing owner Gloria Purcell said it's cheaper for most employers to start a new employee on a temporary basis rather than directly hire him. Temp workers are paid by the hour through the agency, and the agency is reimbursed by the employer, but employers pay staffing agencies a percentage of a direct hire's salary upfront.
Purcell's West Ashley agency fills mostly temporary-to-hire positions. "Employers are more gun-shy that they actually need that person," she said.
She also said the overwhelming number of job applications makes it nearly impossible for an employer to go through them all.
"They can't do all the screening themselves," she said. "There is no way. They are looking for agencies to help them."
Purcell, for example, received 2,000 e-mails this week alone from people looking for work. In one instance, her agency recently received 540 resumes for one administrative receptionist position that required strong computer skills.
"The market is unbelievable," she said. "There are so many people looking."
Patti Stanford, branch manager at Adecco USA, formerly Olsten Staffing, said she has seen a steady increase all year in the number of temporary jobs through her North Charleston office.
"We are interpreting that businesses no longer seem to be viewing temporary employment as a transitory solution to fill the needs of the workplace but rather as a permanent way of strategically building a flexible labor model that generates rewards for businesses and consumers alike," Stanford said. "From what I have been seeing, it's looking positive for temp workers and permanent hires."
Business owners who brought on more workers may have garnered optimism from a recent string of promising corporate news. Some companies have returned to reporting healthy quarterly earnings, and others are beginning to toy with the idea of dipping into their reserves that they had guarded closely during the depths of the economic recession.
"Corporate profits have done very well over the last year, so maybe that'll give them some confidence," said Woodward of USC. "They're realizing that even in a bad economy, you can make money."
Not all private-sector industry categories grew throughout the state, including tourism, trade-related jobs and financial services. Lingering economic challenges for the retail and construction sectors also have clouded hiring in those categories, Woodward said.
And the modest hiring increase puts only a small dent in South Carolina's pool of unemployed residents. An estimated 230,800 residents throughout the state want work but can't find it, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
"We need to (see the addition of) tens of thousands of jobs to talk about a vigorous expansion," Woodward said.
South Carolina's virtually flat unemployment rate fit in line with national trends: Eighteen states saw no change in their unemployment rate, and most others recorded modest fluctuations.