RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - New, more-accurate estimates show North Carolina's unemployment rate stayed above 10 percent throughout 2011, falling to 10.2 percent in January in a key election battleground state, the state Commerce Department reported Tuesday.
North Carolina's jobless rate was the fourth-highest in the country in January, trailing California, Rhode Island and Nevada, which leads the nation with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate.
The report also pointed to some bright spots amid signs of slow improvement in the national economy. An additional 14,213 people were drawing paychecks in January. An extra 6,245 entered the workforce as previously discouraged or young workers started looking for jobs.
On the downside, nearly 8,000 more people were on unemployment rolls in January than in the previous month.
"These new data say the economy is improving but it's also saying the economy is worse than we first thought," said James Kleckley, director of the Bureau of Business Research at East Carolina University.
The estimates were revised in an annual re-examination of available data coupled with U.S. Census information of people reporting themselves as working or unemployed.
The result was that earlier estimates of North Carolina's unemployment rate dropping below 10 percent in December were revised upward. The new estimates are that the state's unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in November and December before falling to 10.2 percent in January. The national average was 8.3 percent in January.
"What everything's been saying is that North Carolina has been improving, but not by leaps and bounds by any means," Kleckley said. "This will make me have to rethink some of the other data. I didn't expect it. I expected the unemployment rate to be a little lower."
North Carolina lost more than 330,000 jobs by the time the national recession bottomed out in February 2010, state data showed Tuesday. Since then, the state has gained back about 80,000 jobs, or about a quarter of the jobs lost, John Connaughton, an economic forecaster at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
In January, North Carolina employers added 17,000 more payroll jobs than they cut.
"We had a big January jump," said Connaughton, who predicts the state's businesses to add about 50,000 jobs this year.
"The issue here is I think the economy has turned a corner. 2012 is going to start to feel like a recovery for most people," he said. "People are going to say, yep, things are getting better. I've got job opportunities. I've got options."
Tuesday's report comes during an election year in which the economy and job prospects are expected to be a huge issue. President Barack Obama is targeting North Carolina as key to his re-election prospects. He narrowly won the state in 2008, reversing a generation of voters picking Republican presidential candidates.
With rising stock markets, increased manufacturing and other indicators pointing to a slowly improving U.S. economy, North Carolina residents have reported increasing optimism. An Elon University poll released last week found about two-thirds of state residents think the economy will either stay the same or get better in the months ahead. More than half of the poll's respondents said the economy was the most important issue facing the state.
Small business owners across the country reported increasing optimism for the sixth straight month in February, the National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday. The hopeful forecast is spreading among North Carolina's main-street business community, but it's far too early to celebrate, NFIB state director Gregg Thompson said.
"It looks like things are finally turning around, but, unless the pace of recovery picks up, it'll be years before we're back where we started," he said.
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