RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's unemployment rate dropped to 8.8 percent in May from April's revised rate of 8.9 percent, marking the fourth straight month of slow improvement in the measure of economic health for workers, the state Commerce Department said Friday.
"The headline is going to say that unemployment goes down a notch," said Robert Whaples, chairman of the economics department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. "But it's not really that beautiful of a change from a month ago."
North Carolina remains stuck with the country's fifth-highest unemployment rate behind Nevada, Illinois, Mississippi and Rhode Island. The national rate rose from 7.5 percent in April to 7.6 percent in May.
The numbers show the total number of employed in North Carolina rose by about 1,000 people between April and May, while the total number of unemployed workers dropped by nearly 2,500, Whaples said. Equally meaningful is that even as the state's population continues to grow, the number of people in the labor force — people who are of working age who have a job or are looking for one — dropped in May by about 1,400, signaling people are still dropping out and ending their job search, Whaples said.
The number of people employed in North Carolina has increased by more than 37,000 in the past year, but there are still more than 416,000 people listed as unemployed.
Since May 2012, the state has added about 56,000 nonfarm jobs, with all but 1,500 of those positions added by private employers. The biggest increase among major industries was in leisure and hospitality services, which added about 25,000 jobs. Whaples noted that jobs in hotels, restaurants and tourism-related businesses often pay low wages.
On the other hand, there were 37,331 more people on North Carolina payrolls in May than in May 2012. That means employers have about 4.3 million workers, a total almost identical to the number on payrolls in December 2007 just before the recession hit hard, Whaples said.
"That's the good news. Our employment in this state has not fallen since the beginning of the recession. It hasn't gotten better. It went down. It came back up. so we're sort of back where we started," he said. "The last few months haven't been much. The last year, it's been enough to keep up with population growth. But it could be worse."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio .