The Triangle’s job market saw a huge and unexpected drop in unemployment, and a corresponding surge in job growth, according to February data issued Wednesday.
Economists cautioned that the lopsided numbers are a fluke and not likely to be sustained.
The region’s jobless rate dropped to 7.2 percent in February, from 7.7 percent just a month earlier. That’s the lowest unemployment rate since December 2008, when the nation was roiled by the worst recession since the Great Depression.
At the same time, the Triangle added 5,500 jobs in February, driven by hiring in education, health services and government. The one-month gain marks a significant expansion by any measure, especially when compared with the paltry 300 jobs the region gained in January.
Economists cautioned against setting such high expectations for the rest of the year, noting that economic growth is based on small samples and can fluctuate from month to month. Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, for example, expects the Triangle to gain 20,000 to 25,000 jobs this year, or about 2,000 jobs a month on average.
“They’re too good to last a long time,” agreed East Carolina University economist James Kleckley. “January was just jaw-dropping bad. So in some ways this could be getting back to where we were before.”
As a matter of perspective, February’s job growth in the Triangle represents more than a quarter of the 19,300 jobs the region added in 2012.
The data was issued by the N.C. Department of Commerce and seasonally adjusted by Wells Fargo economists in Charlotte.
The Triangle’s jobless rate was well below the national average of 7.7 percent. North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 9.4 percent in February, an indication that many counties are still struggling.
The February statistics are a break from several years of incremental gains and occasional reversals in a painfully slow economic recovery. Economists expect hiring and economic activity to pick up moderately this year, particularly in the Triangle, with its strong employee base of government agencies, universities, health care organizations, and pharmaceutical and technology companies.
“The Triangle will be one of the hottest job markets in the country this year,” predicted N.C. State University economist Michael Walden. “I expect in-migration to the Triangle from other parts of the country to ramp up.”
Statewide jobless data for March will be issued April 19.
The Triangle is a combination of two statistical areas known as Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill.