RALEIGH — North Carolina’s unemployment rate declined sharply in November to its lowest level in more than five years, the state Commerce Department said Friday, but seemingly inconsistent data raise questions about how many new jobs are actually being created.
The jobless rate of 7.4 percent compares to 8 percent in October and 8.9 percent back in July. The state rate is also inching closer to the national rate, which was 7 percent in November.
November rates for Scotland County will not be released until January.
The department’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division said the number of people employed in North Carolina grew in the past month by just over 20,000 to more than 4.3 million.
But the labor force itself declined by 8,100, attributed in part to the long-term unemployed giving up on looking for work, said Andrew Brod, a senior researcher within the business school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Over the past 12 months, the labor force has declined by 95,000, while the number of employed has grown by just 6,100, according to division data.
With more detailed industry survey data released showing total nonfarm employment falling by 6,500 positions, Brod said it’s uncertain how much of the drop in the jobless rate is actually due to more hiring.
The unemployment number “looks great, but it’s a continuation of a six-month trend at least in which drops in the unemployment rate are happening mostly because of people leaving the labor force,” Brod said in an interview. “This number looks good, but I take it with a grain of salt.”
Brod said the declining labor force coincides with changes in unemployment benefits approved by the General Assembly that decreased the maximum number of weeks someone can receive benefits and the maximum amount of weekly benefits. The decisions also meant federal benefits for the long-term unemployed were canceled. Brod said people who no longer receive benefits may be less likely to actively look for work, which is a qualification to retain benefits.
Still, Republican legislators called the jobless rate decrease “welcome news” approaching Christmas. They have highlighted a tax overhaul and regulatory reforms passed in 2013 they argue are reinvigorating the economy.
“Republicans in the General Assembly will continue to support policies to further improve our economy and empower the private sector to create more jobs in 2014,” said a joint statement from House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
It was October 2008 when the state’s unemployment rate was last below the new rate, a department spokesman said. North Carolina’s rate, which had been among the highest in the nation during the summer, now is tied for 35th lowest among the states and the District of Columbia, according to federal data.
Brod said it may take another month of data before learning whether the sharp November drop was a survey sampling hiccup or something permanent.
Employment data show the largest month-to-month employment sector increase occurred in the trade, transportation and utility fields with 2,600 positions, followed by professional and business services and construction.