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NC jobless rate falls slightly to 9.4 percent

The state’s unemployment rate edged downward in February but remains just marginally better than it was a year ago.

“It was yet another month that didn’t really alter the status quo very much,” said John Quinterno of South by North Strategies, a Chapel Hill firm specializing in economic and social policy. “It’s very similar to the numbers we’ve seen on and off at least for the past 14 or 15 months.”

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate across North Carolina fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 9.4 percent in February, according to data released Thursday by the state Commerce Department’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division. A year ago, the state’s jobless rate was 9.5 percent.

Quinterno noted that since the beginning of 2012 the unemployment rate has moved up and down within a narrow band – never higher than 9.6 percent or lower than 9.4 percent.

The state unemployment rate continues to lag the national rate of 7.7 percent. The number of unemployed workers in North Carolina totaled 446,840 in February.

North Carolina added 3,300 jobs in February, a gain of one-tenth of a percent.

The state lost 327,800 jobs between December 2007, the pre-recession peak, and February 2010, Quinterno said. Since then the state has added 209,500 jobs.

“We actually have closed a significant part of the gap since then,” Quinterno said. “We shouldn’t ignore that. But on the other hand, it has been so slow that it doesn’t really feel like it is getting better for a lot of folks.”

Of the 10 major private industry sectors, Quinterno said, so far just three in North Carolina have more workers than during the depths of the recession: leisure and hospitality services, education and health services, and professional business services.

Each has its share of low-paying jobs.

“There are very good health care jobs, but in the support services subsector there are a lot of jobs that aren’t particularly good jobs,” Quinterno said.

Leisure and hospitality service jobs, which have increased 5.2 percent over the past year, pay an average wage of just $8.05 an hour, according to the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor.

Looking ahead, James Kleckley, an economist at East Carolina University, expects the state’s unemployment rate to dip below 9 percent before the end of the year.

“We’re not looking at a huge change,” he said. “The expectation is that it’s going to start going down, but not in a dramatic fashion at all. And that’s concerning.”

The problem, he said, is that it’s looking as if the U.S. economy is going to grow at a so-so rate this year, expanding 2 to 3 percent.

“The biggest driver of growth in North Carolina is national growth,” Kleckley said.

Local unemployment data for February are scheduled to be released April 10.

The Triangle unemployment rate, on a seasonally adjusted basis, was 7.7 percent in January.

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