The state’s unemployment rate has dipped below 10 percent for the first time in three years.
The rate fell to 9.9 percent in February, compared to 10.2 percent in January, according to data released Friday by the state Division of Employment Security. The data are adjusted for seasonal fluctuations.
The last time the rate was less than 10 percent was in February 2009, when it was 9.5 percent. At its worst in early 2010, it was 11.4 percent.
“The most important thing to me, when I look at the unemployment rate, is the trend,” Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner said. “It’s been declining since last fall, and all the anecdotal evidence would suggest that trend remains in place. It seems like the state’s economy is gaining momentum and hiring is picking up, particularly in the large metro areas,” such as the Triangle.
The rate was 10.7 percent as recently as September.
Still, the state rate remains significantly higher than the national rate, which was 8.3 percent in February. And just three states – Nevada, Rhode Island and California – have higher unemployment rates.
“It’s certainly a very high rate by any objective or historical standard,” said John Quinterno of South by North Strategies, a Chapel Hill research firm that focuses on economic and social policy.
The state unemployment rate also has consistently been higher than the Triangle’s, where unemployment stood at 8.1 percent in January. The Triangle rate for February is scheduled to be released Thursday.
Getting the unemployment rate below 10 percent again, Quinterno said, doesn’t erase the tales of woe that have accumulated over the last three years.
“There are plenty of communities that have struggled with high unemployment,” he said. “There are families that have had long-term unemployment over that timeframe. … A great number of hardships and difficulties have occurred.”
Public-sector jobs swell
The state added 8,300 jobs in February, led by a gain of 5,600 jobs in the public sector.
Quinterno said he was puzzled by the increase in government jobs. “I’m really not sure what is going on there,” he said.
Over the last two years the number of people employed in North Carolina has risen by 2.9 percent, outpacing the 2.7 percent increase nationwide, said Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University.
“The reason, though, that our unemployment rate is so high is we got clobbered more during the recession,” he added. “We lost 8 percent of our job base, versus 6 percent for the nation.”
The reliance on manufacturing especially hurt the state since many businesses and individuals delayed purchasing nonessential goods during the recession.
Vitner projects that the state will add 50,000 to 60,000 jobs this year. “That would be a pretty good year,” he said.
Walden is even more optimistic, forecasting that the state will add 75,000 to 80,000 jobs. That would push the unemployment rate close to 9 percent.
“Obviously, that’s still not where we want it to be, but it’s moving in the right direction,” he said.