The Triad unemployment rate took a slight decline during August to 4.4%, the N.C. Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

The rate has been on a modest up-and-down cycle for the past nine months, reaching a near 18-year low of 3% in September 2018. It was at a six-month high of 4.5% in July.

The August rate decrease was driven mostly by the annual seasonal boost in government jobs, mostly reflecting public-school teachers’ contracts being created or renewed for the 2019-20 school year.

Teachers are considered unemployed during the summer months unless they work in another job.

For example, the five-county Winston-Salem metropolitan statistical area had a net gain of 2,400 government jobs, while the three-county Greensboro-High Point MSA had a net gain of 5,100 government jobs.

In the Winston-Salem MSA, the jobless rate was unchanged at 4.2% in August.

The Greensboro-High Point and Winston-Salem MSA rates have remained below the 5% threshold since January 2017.

That’s the level considered by most economists as representing full employment — the economic point at which everyone who wants a job has one, employers have the skilled workers they need and there is limited inflationary pressure on wages.

Besides the 2,400 government jobs, the Winston-Salem MSA had a net gain of 700 private-sector jobs from July to August.

There were a net gain of 1,000 jobs in professional and business services, along with a loss of 400 jobs in trade, transportation and utilities, and 200 in “other services.”

Many economists say a year-over-year assessment of the job market is a more accurate representation than monthly comparisons.

Since August 2018, the Winston-Salem area has had a net gain of 7,600 jobs, highlighted by 2,200 in professional and business services, 1,900 in education and health services, 1,400 in leisure and hospitality, 800 in manufacturing, 600 in construction and 400 in trade, transportation and utilities.

The 2.9% increase in employment over the year was the second highest among the 14 regions measured by Commerce.

However, some economists and analysts were not overly encouraged with the jobless-rate picture.

They stress that North Carolina’s employment recovery has occurred mostly in five urban counties, particularly in Charlotte and the Triangle, which account for at least 45% of the net gain of jobs since February 2013.

Over the past year, the Greensboro-High Point MSA had a gain of 800 jobs. By comparison, the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord MSA had a net gain of 27,500, the Raleigh-Cary MSA had a net gain of 10,800 jobs and the Durham-Chapel Hill MSA of 300.

The left-leaning N.C. Justice Center has said that “if growth continues to concentrate in a handful of cities, the overwhelming majority of communities in North Carolina will be extremely vulnerable when the current growth cycle comes to an end.

“It is frightening to consider that as we near the apparent end of a growth cycle that many counties are, in many ways, worse off now than they were at the beginning of the Great Recession,” said William Munn, policy analyst with the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.

“It’s concerning that, as we prepare for more economic and natural shocks to our economy, too few of our communities are ready to weather new storms.”

The state’s economy remained in neutral during August, but continues to be down 8% from a year ago, according to an index compiled by economics professor Michael Walden of N.C. State University.

The index measures leading state economic indicators, such as manufacturing employment hours and wages, residential building permits and initial jobless claims. It ordinarily serves as a forecast of the state economy four to six months out. The data is seasonally adjusted.

There were two significant movements from July to August: an 8.1% increase in building permits and a 17.9% jump in unemployment claims.

When making a year-over-year comparison, unemployment claims were up 17.6%, building permits down 15.5%, manufacturing employment hours down 1.9% and manufacturing employment wages down 2.3%.

“For the ninth straight month, the index was little changed, suggesting the current pace of economic growth in the state will continue in upcoming months,” Walden said.

Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University, said that “we continue to be in a holding pattern with respect to the jobless rate.

“But a number of other indicators strongly suggest that economic growth is stagnating and that a recession is imminent, if it has not already begun.

“The turmoil in the repossession market, current political situations surrounding possible impeachment of the president, the lack of positive China-U.S. trade news, and the continuing uncertainty regarding Brexit all are creating enormous headwinds that imperil the global economy, as well as our own local economy.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com

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