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Triad’s jobless rate falls to 6.6 percent

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The Triad’s jobless rate reversed course again during February, falling 0.3 percentage points to 6.6 percent, the N.C. Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

The decrease returned the Triad’s unemployment rate back to where it began 2014, which is a 5½-year low. The unemployment rates also dropped in the state’s other four major metro areas by similar levels.

The rate is down from 9.6 percent in February 2013. It had declined over seven consecutive months before rising in January.

Economists are mixed on whether the January increase was just a bump in the road of the “Carolina comeback” that Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders having been touting since weekly unemployment insurance benefits were cut by the General Assembly in July.

“February’s report saw a drop in the jobless rate for two reasons: more jobs were created, which is good, but fewer people were looking for work, which is bad,” said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.

The state’s workforce (those who have a job and those actively looking) 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 workers are full time, temporary or part time.

Affecting the Forsyth jobless rate was a decrease of 772 in the labor force during February for a total of 175,483. There also were 740 fewer Forsyth residents listed as unemployed, to 10,767.

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.

Commerce reported that the Winston-Salem metropolitan statistical area had a net gain of 1,200 jobs from January to February, but also a loss of 100 jobs year over year. There was a net monthly gain of 400 jobs in the trade, transportation and utilities sector, and 300 each in professional and business services, and in leisure and hospitality.

By comparison, the Greensboro-High Point MSA had a net loss of 900 jobs from January to February, and a net loss of 800 jobs year over year.

Walden said the overarching employment issue in North Carolina and the nation is a “two-track labor market.”

“Individuals who have the skills and training employers want are having a better time finding work.

“But individuals who don’t have those skills and training are being left out – and many of them have simply left the labor force. If these folks drop out of the labor force, they make the jobless rate look better than it is.

“New studies are showing this split won’t go away anytime soon, and may indeed get worse with the introduction of more labor-saving technology and equipment,” Walden said.

Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities, expressed more optimism about the Triad economy

“While I have no doubt that people dropping out of the labor force is an issue, the Triad economy seems to have a bit more spring in its step,” Vitner said. “Hiring has picked up across most industries, and the pace of improvement also has picked up.”

The rate for the Winston-Salem metropolitan statistical area fell to 6.1 percent to a revised 6.4 percent over the month. The MSA consists currently of Davie, Forsyth, Stokes and Yadkin counties. Davidson County was crafted into the MSA by a federal agency in March 2013, but its employment data has yet to be factored into the region.

Forsyth’s rate also flipped back. from 6.5 percent to 6.1 percent. Thirteen of the 14 counties in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina experienced a rate decline. Yadkin County had the lowest jobless rate at 5.5 percent.

Commerce officials and economists say year-over-year labor force comparisons provide a more accurate assessment because they eliminate some of the seasonality.

In that case, it’s clear that the Triad continues to fall further behind the Charlotte and Raleigh economies.

The Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, S.C., MSA created 20,000 jobs year over year, while the Raleigh-Cary MSA created 18,300.

McCrory and Republican legislators claim 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.

John Quinterno, a principal with research firm South by North Strategies Ltd., said he considers that “labor market conditions in North Carolina as a whole, and in many individual communities, remain far from healthy.” He said if the people who dropped out of the labor force are factored back in, the Triad rate could be nearly 3 percentage points higher.