Jobless rate in N.C. hits 6-year high

No matter how you slice the numbers, North Carolina's job market is weakening.

In just two months, unemployment jumped a full percentage point and is at the highest level in almost seven years.

The N.C. Employment Commission on Friday said joblessness in August rose to 6.9 percent from 6.6 percent in July. In June, it was 5.9 percent. South Carolina's rate jumped to 7.6 percent – the fifth-highest in the U.S. – up from 7 percent in July.

North Carolina's unemployment is the highest since January 2002 and remains above the national average, which was 6.1 percent in August.

“The increase in the unemployment rate is pretty significant,” said Mark Vitner, an economist with Wachovia. “There's a little more stress in the numbers than I would have expected.”

August is a transition month for the labor market as high school and college students return to school. The shift can skew job and labor force numbers and make it a bit more difficult to tease out the underlying trends.

For example, a household survey used to calculate unemployment showed that the total number of people employed in the state declined by 45,246 in August compared with July.

That's the biggest monthly decline recorded in 32 years of N.C. statistics maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But before panic sets in, consider figures from a separate survey of nonfarm employers in North Carolina. It showed they actually added 3,500 jobs statewide last month – anemic growth but a stark contrast to the findings of the household report.

The surveys have different methodologies that contribute to the disparity. But usually they at least move in the same direction.

“We have, once again, this matter of dueling reports that give us a different view of the situation,” said Mike Walden, an N.C. State University economist, who noted most economists give more credence to the employer survey. “We may need to look ahead and see if these two surveys can come to some agreement.

“Either way,” he continued, “clearly the employment market has slowed, and it's probably looking a little worse than what many of us thought.”

The state's two largest metropolitan regions – Charlotte and the Triangle – have held up fairly well, despite the economic uncertainty.

Companies such as Red Hat and SAS, both software developers, continue to hire in the Triangle. In Charlotte, Bank of America and some other financial companies also are adding workers even as their industry reels from the mortgage mess.

Elsewhere in the state, though, layoffs are mounting.

Since early August, Cobia Boats has announced plans to close a plant in Marion and put 68 people out of work. Hilex Poly said it will shut down in Mount Olive and lay off 160. And Land O Sun said it will close a Pet ice cream plant in Hickory, affecting 106 employees.

According to the N.C. Employment Security Commission data, the professional services, trade and transportation and manufacturing sectors lost the most jobs last month. The biggest gains were in government, hospitality, education and health care.