Mecklenburg jobless rate falls to 6.7%

Mecklenburg County’s unemployment rate dipped to 6.7 percent in December, its lowest rate in more than five years, data released Wednesday show.

The 6.7 percent rate marked a sharp year-over-year decline from 9.2 percent in December 2012. The rate was 7.1 percent in November.

Mecklenburg’s rate hasn’t been this low since September 2008, when it stood at 6.4 percent. The recession and financial meltdown would push it to double digits by May 2009; the rate didn’t fall to single digits again until October 2011. It has been gradually falling since.

The rate for the broader Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill metropolitan area stood at 6.6 percent in December, down from 9.4 percent a year earlier. That matched the statewide unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, which hadn’t been adjusted for seasonal employment variations.

The biggest number of job gains for Mecklenburg came in the professional and business services sector, which added 8,600 positions, a gain of 6 percent. Trade, transportation and utilities added 6,600, a 3.7 percent gain.

Leisure and hospitality, the sector that has been adding the most jobs in recent months, grew by 4,600 jobs, or 4.7 percent.

“The numbers look pretty good,” said Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner.

The year-over-year decline in Charlotte’s unemployment rate was the largest in the nation among metro areas of 1 million or more people, he added.

The continued decline in the area’s unemployment rate will likely add to the debate swirling across North Carolina and nationally about the impact of the state’s decision last summer to cut off federal long-term unemployment benefits for nearly 70,000 people.

North Carolina was the first state to do so. Now about 1.7 million other Americans have lost the benefits after Congress failed to extend long-term benefits late last year.

Studies have suggested that some of the jobless in North Carolina have taken on lower-paying part-time posts; others have given up looking, which means they aren’t counted as part of the jobless rate.

UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton said he believes more recent declines in labor force participation rates have stemmed largely from baby boomers retiring.

The Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill area logged the largest net year-over-year employment increase in the state with 22,600 jobs, a gain of 2.6 percent. The Raleigh-Cary area followed with 13,000 jobs, a gain of 2.5 percent.