South Carolina’s Record Employment Numbers Include Growth In Government Jobs

Richard Breen

Thursday, October 24th, 2019

South Carolina continues to set employment records and while public-sector jobs are making a slow comeback from the Great Recession across the nation, government workers in the Palmetto State appear to be doing better.

In September South Carolina hit an all-time high with 2,311,479 people working, according to the state Department of Employment and Workforce.

“The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate moved lower over the month, from 3.2% in August to an historic low of 2.9% in September,” SCDEW also reported.

Compared to September 2018, there were 60,432 more people working in South Carolina. That includes an increase of 5,300 government workers (local, state and federal).

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that nationally, the number of public sector jobs dropped by 93,000, to 19.6 million, between March 2008 and March 2018. Meanwhile, private-sector employment reached 125.9 million in 2018, adding more than 10 million jobs since 2008.

“By March 2014, the private sector had already regained and surpassed the level of employment it had in the same month in 2008,” the Census Bureau reports. “Although employment in the public sector did not decline as much overall as employment in private industry, the rebound of the public sector is taking longer than it did for the private sector.”

That’s not unusual, according to Dr. Philip Swicegood, a Wofford College finance professor.

“The private sector is a little more agile,” he said. “It’s quicker to fire but quicker to hire back.”

In South Carolina, examining government employment through a longer time frame provides another context. Dr. Scott Baier, chairman of the Clemson University economics department, went back to January 2001 and found that government’s share of overall employment in the Palmetto State was 17.4%.

“In January 2019, it was about 17%,” he said. “When you look through a wider window, it’s not too much different 18 years down the road.

Baier, who served as a senior economist on the Bush administration’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2007-08, said government stimulus spending during the Great Recession played a role.

“The peak was in May 2010, when it was over 20%,” he said. “It was artificially inflated coming out of the Great Recession.”

This September, there were 375,100 government workers in South Carolina, by SCDEW estimates. That compares to 358,600 in September 2008 and 325,300 in September 2001.

A report from USA Today using 2017 data put government’s portion of the overall South Carolina workforce at 17.5%. That share ranked 17th nationally. North Carolina ranked 21st (16.6%) and Georgia was 30th (15.4%).

Public-sector jobs are not immune from South Carolina’s tight labor market.

“There does seem to be some issue with government job vacancies not being filled as quickly,” Baier said.

Both Baier and Swicegood said the public sector is having to compete against private businesses – which can often afford to offer better pay and/or benefits – for job candidates. Swicegood said government job vacancies are being exacerbated by the number of baby boomers heading to retirement.

“That’s going to be more and more of a challenge,” said Swicegood, who has served as an analyst for the U.S. Treasury Department. He added that federal government borrowing and local and state budget pressures – such as those baby boomer pension commitments – will be “putting more and more of a headwind on the public sector going forward.”

Other highlights from South Carolina’s September jobs report:

Charleston/North Charleston was the metro area with the lowest unemployment rate (1.5%)

Charleston had the lowest county unemployment rate (1.4%)

Bamberg had the highest county unemployment rate (4.3%)

Greenville County had the largest number of people working (249,329)

Nationally, the September unemployment rate was (3.5%)