'It's A Great Day In South Carolina,' If You Have A Job

Originally published on December 29, 2011 6:48 pm

South Carolina has an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, above the current national figure.

But that's not the message you'll get if you call Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's office, where you'll be greeted with a cheery message: "It's a great day in South Carolina ..."

And that's the same message you'll receive when calling any other state agency. Or attend any recent event with the governor, like one last month in Columbia where TD Bank announced its plans to create a regional hub.

"It's another great day in South Carolina, and we celebrate TD Bank's decision to increase its operations throughout our state and create 1,600 new jobs," Haley said.

The conservative governor took some heat recently for mandating that state agencies use such an upbeat greeting when the unemployment rate is higher than the national figure.

But Haley points to the more than 15,000 new jobs she has announced in South Carolina since January.

In October, Nephron Pharmaceuticals announced it will invest $313 million in Lexington County to build a new manufacturing plant and hire more than 700 people. That same month, Continental Tire also announced a $500 million investment to build a manufacturing plant in Sumter County.

Both were called "big wins" by Haley, who recently endorsed GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"Big Wins" To Correct A Big Loss

For some perspective on those 15,000 new jobs, consider that South Carolina's economy has lost 78,000 jobs since its employment peak in 2007. The vast majority of those jobs were in construction, and that was a major blow to fast-growing counties that are the engine of South Carolina's economy.

Before the recession, people flocked to places like York County to build new homes in a rural setting with a quick commute to the once-booming Charlotte region of neighboring North Carolina.

Now, York County's unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the highest of the state's large counties.

John Harding is a custom-home builder in York County, but the only home he is building at the moment is his own. In 2008, Harding had eight employees and work backed up six to eight weeks. Now it's just him and his wife, with business down by half.

"They're killing the economy. They're absolutely killing it," said Harding, when asked about his opinion of Congress and President Obama.

Harding is looking for a strong leader to take charge. But he has yet to make up his mind and is not certain the current field of Republican presidential candidates has the answer.

"I'm not sure that even the Republican Party right now has that person," said Harding. "You know, Mitt's got a lot of problems. Newt Gingrich's got a lot of problems. I tell you, Michele [Bachmann] ... a lot of people need to be looking at her."

Undecided Voters Look For Economic Solutions

Indecision is a hallmark of South Carolina Republican sentiment in the coming primary. The economy may be the top issue for voters, but voters are not at all sure who can fix it. In seemingly every poll, a different presidential candidate pulls ahead.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's economic picture is far from monochrome: Optimism is popping up among job searchers in metro areas that are starting to rebound.

"I think we're getting there, because there's some people that have started out with their unemployment with me that have found jobs within the last six months, so I think that's better," says Cheryl Jenerette, who lost her York County government job two years ago.

Neighboring Chester County is a different story.

Its unemployment rate is 14.1 percent. In 2010, it was above 20 percent. This is one of many rural South Carolina areas where textile mills once employed entire towns.

Now, the mills are closed and the state's shift toward modern manufacturing has left Chester behind. Low education levels are a key problem, so Chester residents raised millions of dollars to open a technical college campus in 2009.

The college has given people like Walter Turner a reason to stay in town, while so many of his peers flee in search of work. Turner, the 20-year-old son of a former millworker, hopes to become a graphic designer.

2012 will be his first time voting, and the economy is on his mind,

"I mean, who's to blame for unemployment rates? I don't really know," remarked Turner. "I guess, I hope, I hope a Republican will come up who can do better."

Outside the Chester County unemployment office, Juanita Johnson's hopes are focused on finding work to replace the job she just lost at a snack food plant an hour away.

"It's just, there's nothing. It's poor morale right now, because you got just enough to get by," said Johnson.

And all those new jobs the governor's been announcing? So far, only 50 have arrived in Chester County.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour in one of the first states to weigh in next month with its presidential primary, South Carolina. The economy will be the top issue for many voters, so we're taking the economic temperature of several early voting states. Yesterday, we heard from Iowa, where unemployment is low compared to the rest of the country.

But Julie Rose, of member station WFAE, reports a different story in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate is now on the verge of 10 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: Ring up the South Carolina governor's office, and you'll get this cheery message:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a great day in South Carolina. Governor Nikki Haley's office, how may I help you?

ROSE: Governor Haley took some heat recently for mandating state agencies use that greeting. A 10 percent unemployment rate is hardly a great day, her critics say. But Haley just points to the more than 15,000 new jobs she's announced in South Carolina since January.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS ANNOUNCEMENTS)

GOV. NIKKI HALEY: Three-hundred and thirteen million dollars...over $500 million...that's what we're celebrating...1,700 jobs...1,600 jobs...almost $20 million in investment in South Carolina. That's worth celebrating today.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROSE: For some perspective on those 15,000 new jobs, consider that South Carolina's economy has lost 78,000 jobs since its employment peak in 2007. The vast majority were construction jobs, and that was a big blow to fast-growing counties that are the engine of South Carolina's economy. York County, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER, BIRDS)

ROSE: Before the recession, people flocked here to build lovely homes in a rural setting, with a quick commute to the once-booming Charlotte region of neighboring North Carolina. Now, York's unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the highest of the state's large counties.

JOHN HARDING: This is just new construction here.

ROSE: John Harding is a custom-home builder in York County. But the only home he's building at the moment is his own.

HARDING: Took advantage of the interest rates and nobody else is building right now, so we figured we would.

ROSE: In 2008, Harding had eight employees - and work backed up six to eight weeks. Now, it's just him and his wife, with business down by half. Harding blames Congress and President Obama.

HARDING: They're killing the economy; they're absolutely killing it.

ROSE: He's looking for a strong leader to take charge.

HARDING: And I'm not sure that even the Republican Party right now has that person.

ROSE: He wonders about former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has the endorsement of Governor Haley; or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - or maybe Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

HARDING: You know, Mitt's got a lot of problems. Newt Gingrich's got a lot of problems. I'll tell you, Michele, you know - a lot of people need to be looking at her.

ROSE: Indecision is a hallmark of South Carolina Republican sentiment in the coming primary. The economy may be the top issue for voters, but they're not at all sure who can fix it. And South Carolina's economic picture is far from monochrome. Optimism is popping up among job searchers in metro areas that are starting to rebound. Cheryl Jenerette lost her York County government job two years ago, but says...

CHERYL JENERETTE: I think we're getting there, because there's some people that started out with their unemployment with me, that have found jobs within the last six months. So I think that's better.

ROSE: Neighboring Chester County is a different story. Its unemployment rate is 14.1 percent. In 2010, it was above 20 percent. This is one of many rural South Carolina areas where textile mills once employed entire towns. Now, the mills are closed, and the state's shift toward modern manufacturing has left Chester behind. Low education levels are a key problem, so Chester residents raised millions of dollars to open a technical college campus in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WALTER TURNER: York Tech Chester, this is Walter.

ROSE: The college has given Walter Turner a reason to stay in town, while so many of his peers flee in search of work. He's the 20-year-old son of a former millworker, hoping to become a graphic designer. 2012 will be his first time voting. And yes, the economy is on his mind.

TURNER: But, I mean, who's to blame for unemployment rates? I mean, I don't really know.

ROSE: Turner's waiting for guidance from his dad on who should replace President Obama.

TURNER: I guess - I guess - I hope - I hope a Republican will come up who can do better.

ROSE: Outside the Chester County unemployment office, Juanita Johnson's hopes are focused on finding work to replace the job she just lost at a snack-food plant an hour away.

JUANITA JOHNSON: It's just - there's nothing. It's just - poor morale right now because you've gotten just enough to get by.

ROSE: Are things getting better in this area, do you think?

JOHNSON: No. No.

ROSE: And all those new jobs the governor's been announcing? Only 50 came to Chester County.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.