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Why are so many South Carolinians unemployed as job openings rise? Task force aims to find answer

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Published: Mar. 25, 2022 at 6:55 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 25, 2022 at 7:21 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The number of open jobs across South Carolina totals to six figures, tens of thousands more than the number of vacancies before the pandemic.

But new data released Friday reveals slightly over half the number of South Carolinians who are old enough and eligible to work are employed or actively looking for a job, even as the state’s unemployment rate remains below the national average.

South Carolina’s Labor Force Participation Task Force launched this week with the goal of trying to figure out why such a discrepancy exists between those figures and aims to have the answer by year’s end.

“This is designed to be very actionable. This is designed to help inform us at DEW, as well as others in South Carolina, of what we can do,” Dr. Bryan Grady, a task force member and labor market information director at the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce, said.

The state’s latest workforce data shows the number of South Carolinians working is rising, up to 2,295,706 in February from 2,292,300 in January, and nearly 50,000 more people from this point last year.

At the same time, more than 112,000 open jobs are currently posted on SC Works Online Services, more than a 41,000-vacancy jump from before the pandemic began.

What Grady said is concerning to economists like him is the state’s labor force participation rate, the rate of South Carolinians who are 16 and older and able to work who are employed or actively looking for jobs.

In February, that rate was 57.2%, slightly higher than January’s figure of 57.1% but a drop from the 57.4% rate at this point last year and lower than the current national average of 62.2%.

The task force’s goal is to figure out who is not included in these numbers and what is holding them back from employment, which could be a variety of factors, Grady said.

“Do people with disabilities have challenges? Do people who were previously incarcerated have challenges finding work? Rural broadband — we’ve heard about that a lot at the state level. If you’re trying to find a remote job but you don’t have a stable internet connection, that’s a hurdle to employment,” he said, listing a population aging toward retirement and retirees moving to South Carolina among other factors.

Geography is likely also at play for some South Carolinians, according to Frank Knapp, the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

“If you’re in a very rural part of South Carolina and you say, ‘I would like a job,’ but most of the jobs are in Greenville or Columbia or Charleston, they’re not going to move, and so that’s not going to be resolved,” Knapp said.

Instead, Knapp believes the state needs to find other, untapped pools of labor, including previously incarcerated people struggling to get hired and immigrants.

“We have millions of people across this world who would love to come to South Carolina and other states to work. So legal immigration is a problem we have now in this country that can address the labor shortage,” he said, adding the up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees eligible to come to the United States could provide an opportunity to work with businesses to help them match refugees’ skillsets with open jobs and then relocate to those areas with employers’ assistance.

The task force will next meet in early April and hopes to compile its findings by the end of the year.

“There’s certainly a question there of, if we can’t provide a labor force that covers all of an employer’s potential needs, that could, theoretically, compromise our competitiveness,” Grady said.

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