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Carolinas' job market rut likely to last

This past September, Jeff Weaver of Myrtle Beach was a licensed residential contractor.

Today, he's part of a crew of 11 in Antarctica installing generators for a power plant upgrade.

A lack of available jobs along the Grand Strand prompted him to take one on a different continent during a time of the year it experiences 24-hour sunlit days.

By the time he gets back in October, the Strand's job scene might not be much better.

There will be fewer seasonal jobs, and many year-round positions are gone, too. Local layoffs in the fourth quarter included "a substantial number of full-time, year-round positions that will eventually come back, but perhaps not until 2010," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

"With tourism revenues to decline and travelers making last-minute decisions, many businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach by not filling positions they can avoid hiring for in the short term," he said. "We do not expect unemployment to rise far beyond the current levels, but it may not drop as low or as quickly as we have become accustomed to. ... Just a few years ago, employees could pick and choose where and when to work. But today the landscape has changed and some employers don't even need to advertise openings due to the large number of unsolicited applications and resumes they are receiving."

But a few things in the works offer just a bit of hope for job seekers this year:

A new unemployment processing center opened in February in Myrtle Beach.

A federal stimulus package will be working its way through the economy. If effective, the White House estimates it could create 50,000 jobs in South Carolina, 9,300 of them in the First Congressional District, which includes parts of Horry and Georgetown counties.

Hard Rock Park could reopen in May and could fill a little of the employment void it helped create when it shut down in September.

"It's likely it will add at least a few hundred seasonal jobs, which would be welcomed news in this economy," Dean said.

To varying degrees

Most economists did not predict such a steep decline in employment. And while they have various forecasts for 2009 and beyond, they aren't certain when things will turn around - but note some industries will fare better than others.

"Even throughout 2009, I expect to see job growth in all kinds of health-related fields," said Don Schunk, a research economist with Coastal Carolina University.

Jobs in the health care field, especially along the Grand Strand, are as close as it comes to recession proof.

"Beyond that, you'd be real hard-pressed to find any major industry that's going to be growing," he said.

The Horry County unemployment rate will remain in the double digits through 2010 then begin a turnaround, Schunk said. But more people are likely to lose jobs this year even after the economy starts to recover, with hotels, restaurants and attractions leading the pack in shedding jobs, he said.

Other forecasts are also pessimistic.

The employment outlooks for the Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, N.C., metropolitan areas, which include all of the Grand Strand, are among the weakest in the nation, according to a survey by Manpower Inc.

Nationally, while slightly more companies plan to hire than fire, more companies locally plan to reduce payrolls during the first quarter of 2009.

In the Myrtle Beach area, 14 percent of companies plan to hire while 17 percent expect reductions.

The construction and hospitality industries are expected to take the biggest hits.

In the Wilmington metro area, which includes Brunswick County, 19 percent of companies expect layoffs and 12 percent plan to hire, according to Manpower.

Nationally, 16 percent plan to increase staff levels while 13 percent expect reductions.

"This may suggest that a majority of employers are carefully monitoring the uncertain economic environment prior to making any additional employment decisions," Manpower CEO Jeffrey A. Joerres said in a statement.

Going where the work is

Weaver, the residential contractor from Myrtle Beach who found work in Antarctica, was a supervisor at Hard Rock Park before its owners filed for bankruptcy, leaving about 2,000 people out of work.

South Carolina's unemployment rate has reached 9.5 percent - its highest level since January 1983 - since Weaver packed up for Antarctica, according to the S.C. Employment Security Commission. It is among the highest in the nation and expected to climb - with some estimates saying it could reach 14 percent.

Weaver left during one of the most pronounced job market downturns in U.S. history.

It's unclear what will happen this year with the state's unemployment trust fund, said Rodney Welch, a spokesman with the S.C. Employment Security Commission.

And it's unclear what kind of job market Weaver will return to when he makes it back to Myrtle Beach in October.

"Before I took this job, my wife and I discussed what kind of salary I would need to make for it to be worth the time away from my family," Weaver said. "I got a call with my offer and it was right where we needed to be, better than what I was making at the beach. I would have never thought I would need to leave the country to get work. I guess I was kind of spoiled in the sense that there was always work I could get somewhere local - more jobs than people - not like it is now, more people than jobs."

Lisa Fleisher contributed to this report.

Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at ibailey@thesunnews.com or 626-0357.


JOB GROWTH

The fastest growing occupations in South Carolina:

Home health aides

Demonstrators, promoters and models

Computer engineers

Physical and corrective therapy assistants and aides

Ushers and lobby attendants

Paralegal personnel

Physical therapists

Human services workers

Systems analysts, electronic data processors

Source: S.C. Employment Security Commission

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