WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The state’s jobless rate fell for the eighth consecutive month during February, dropping 0.3 percentage points to 6.4 percent, the N.C. Commerce Department reported Friday.
It has dropped by 2.2 percentage points in the past year.
It is at its lowest level since 6.3 percent in July 2008 – three months before the full effect of the economic downturn began to be felt in the state and nationally.
It also is the first time since March 2006 that the N.C. rate was below the U.S. rate, which was 6.7 percent in February.
As has been the case for the past nine months, the reasons for the month-over-month decline continue lend themselves to a half-empty or a half-full perspective on the economy.
For example, the state’s workforce dropped by 7,349 from January to February when using the seasonally adjusted household survey, one of two methods used by Commerce to measure the job market. That represented 7,399 more North Carolinians being listed as employed and 14,748 fewer being considered as unemployed.
That data does not distinguish how many of those are full time, temporary or part time.
When people stop looking for work, they are no longer considered unemployed for the purpose of calculating the jobless rate, which tends to lower the rate.
In the employer survey, the state had an overall loss of 10,300 private-sector jobs and 1,000 in government.
The biggest job losses were felt in the education and health services sector at 6,900, along with 2,300 each in construction and in professional and business services. Only two categories had a net gain of jobs, 2,600 in the trade, transportation and utilities sector and 1,200 in manufacturing.
“Mixed reports again,” said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.
“From the payroll survey, the job losses probably were exacerbated by weather. From the household survey, employment gains, which is good, but reduced labor force, which is bad.
“Spring should be better, especially for the long anticipated construction jobs. But the job market is not healed.”
Commerce officials and economists say year-over-year comparisons provide a more accurate assessment of the employment picture because it eliminates some of the seasonality.
In that instance, the state’s labor force is down 63,667 over the past 12 months – 48,459 more considered as employed and 112,126 fewer listed as unemployed.
The employer survey shows a net gain of 49,300 private-sector jobs and a loss of 2,900 government jobs in the past year.
Economists say it might take a year or more to determine whether actions taken by the General Assembly, signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory and put into effect July 1, will improve the state’s job market.
Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators have touted the decline of the unemployment rate over the past seven months as signs of a “Carolina comeback.” McCrory released a statement just after the employment report was released that reflected that opinion.
They say that a tough-love approach that included reducing weekly jobless benefits in terms of maximum amount and number of weeks have made individuals more willing to take available jobs, including at lower wages and potentially below their skill level, as their benefits run out.
McCrory mentioned the increase in employed North Carolinians in his three-paragraph statement, but did not cite the further lowering of the labor force.
“I’m pleased to see that more and more people are getting back to work, but the job is far from finished,” McCrory said.
“While I am encouraged by the continued progress we have made over such a short period of time, we will remain focused on pro-jobs policies that help people get back to work and position North Carolina for a strong and steady comeback over the long-term.”
Meanwhile, advocates say the rate drop continues to reflect individuals leaving the labor market altogether rather than finding work.
Andrew Brod, a senior research fellow for UNC Greensboro’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said about 60 percent of the drop in number of unemployed people was because of people leaving the labor force.
The traditional jobless rate does not include several categories of people, including those who have stopped looking for work, are retired, are underemployed for their work skills, are able to work full time but can only get part-time work, or are receiving a severance package after the elimination of their job.
A rate compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U6 index, includes those categories. As of Dec. 31, the U6 index rate for North Carolina was 14.7 percent compared with 12.6 percent nationally on Feb. 28.
Walden said the February report further reinforces his opinion that North Carolina is experiencing a two-prong economy.
“Jobs are being created for those with the right skills, mainly college trained, but many unemployed are giving up looking for work,” Walden said.