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Editorial: SC jobs report encouraging, but labor market still sorting itself out

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The good news for South Carolina is that the unemployment rate continues to drop. The bad news is that the labor force hasn't recovered, so employers are still struggling to find workers. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The October jobs report from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce was encouragingly upbeat. The state is recovering from the COVID shutdowns faster than the national average, and its unemployment rate in October was a healthy 3.9%, well below the U.S. average of 4.6%.

DEW Director Dan Ellzey said last week that there were 14,000 more people working in the state than before the pandemic arrived in South Carolina, back in February 2020.

But our leaders should realize that in terms of full employment, our state still has a way to go before it catches up with the strength of its pre-pandemic economy.

For example, in September 2019, there were roughly 57,000 unemployed South Carolinians seeking work. Last month, the number was about 94,000, an increase of 37,000. And that doesn’t tell the full story because labor-force participation has dropped as many people have decided not to seek jobs: About 30,000 South Carolinians have left the workforce.

A number of occupations also have experienced job losses, led by the leisure and hospitality sector, where employment has dropped by 19,000 jobs since October 2019.

And that’s in a state where, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 176,000 job openings. There is a critical shortage in heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, with 1,500 unfilled jobs throughout the state and about 400 vacancies in Charleston County alone.

This gap is contributing directly to supply chain problems that are slowing the delivery of goods and creating costly shortages. The need for drivers could become even more apparent during the holidays, when the household shopping peaks. Mr. Ellzey said the employment agency is doing everything it can to help employers find applicants for those truck driver jobs.

“Our agency identifies all unemployment claimants with truck driving experience and connects them with local employers who are hiring,” he said in a news release. “An individual does not have to be on unemployment, however, to obtain a trucking job. Representatives in the SC Works centers can help with training opportunities and linking people with area employers, for the trucking industry and many others.”

Such efforts will begin to fill the job gaps, but national data suggest that a lot of people have left the job market permanently either through retirement or deciding to stay home with children. Others have decided that they are no longer interested in their old jobs. That has made openings in restaurants, for example, much harder to fill despite some employers offering signing bonuses and higher pay.

The latest numbers show our economy continues to rebound from the pandemic, but persistent problems remain. It’s going to take time for the labor market to sort itself out, and our state’s leaders should continue to look for opportunities to help where they can.

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