The state's jobless rate dropped slightly to 11.1 percent in March as North Carolina's economy continues its slow healing from the recession.
The report released Friday by the N.C. Employment Security Commission showed modest improvement from February, when the state rate was 11.2 percent, the highest level since at least 1976.
But North Carolina's jobless rate remains well above the nation's, which held steady at 9.7 percent in March.
It will probably take at least three years for the state to replace the 277,700 jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007, said Michael Walden, an N.C. State economist. At that time, the North Carolina jobless rate was 4.9 percent.
The good news is that employers in the state continued to add jobs, albeit slowly. The number of people employed increased by 18,122 workers in March, according to a monthly household survey. A survey of employers showed 3,300 non-farm jobs added.
"We're on our way to recovery, the question now is how strong it will be," said Walden, who expects the employers in the state to add 40,000 to 50,000 jobs this year.
"Hiring is not rampant, but it's beginning to pick up," he added. If people out of work aren't looking, they should "dust off that résumé and start knocking on doors again."
Critics say the official reports underplay the depth of the economic pain by not counting people who have stopped looking for work or those who have taken part-time or lower wage jobs to make ends meet.
As state lawmakers prepare to return to Raleigh in May, advocates are urging that they look at new ways to boost job creation. The John Locke Foundation, for example, is pushing legislators to reduce taxes, especially for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
And employers who receive state subsidies should be given incentives to hire the long-term unemployed, said Alexandra Forter Sirota, a policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center.
Still, lawmakers are going to have their hands full trying to balance a budget with income-tax revenue down, said UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton.
Meanwhile, the state's weak employment market remains frustrating for many job seekers. "This isn't like the floodgates are open," Connaughton said. "This is going to be a painfully slow recovery."
Mark Schurtman of Raleigh finished a contract job at software maker Red Hat about three months ago. Since then, he has been networking, taking classes on improving his job search and doing numerous interviews.
At one point, Schurtman, 48, considered a job offer in Charlotte but decided the commute would be too costly and time consuming.
"I've had some good luck in the past few weeks, and I'm hoping it won't be much longer," he added.
The state's report showed that the battered manufacturing sector was a bright spot in March, adding 2,100 jobs. The biggest decline was in professional and business services, which lost 2,400 jobs.
As the recovery takes hold, traditional manufacturing jobs in the textile and furniture sectors will continue to be replaced by new jobs in sectors such as technology, services and health care.
The health industry, in particular, should be a strong economic engine as the population ages and the recently passed health law kicks in, Walden said. But he also expects to see a rebound in construction jobs as renewed activity spurs hiring.
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