For the third straight month, North Carolina's unemployment rate remained at 9.7 percent, as employers shed about 7,400 jobs, according to state figures released Friday.
The May numbers included a loss of about 4,000 jobs in the professional and business services sector, along with other significant losses in health, education and government, according to the state Employment Security Commission.
North Carolina's joblessness was lower than the national figure for May, which was 9.1 percent. The state has exceeded the national rate every month since November 2010, when both were at 9.8 percent. North Carolina's official jobless rate has hovered slightly above or below 10 percent for nearly a year, something that should be a major concern for policymakers, said Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.
"We can't settle into a situation where normal is around 10 percent unemployment without doing significant damage to generations of North Carolinians," he said.
Since May 2010, the unemployment rate has dropped from 10.8 percent. In the last 12 months, the number of employed workers has grown by more than 15,000, and the number of unemployed people has decreased by more than 55,000, state figures show.
But since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, the state has lost nearly 289,000 jobs, or close to 7 percent of its payroll employment base, according to John Quinterno of Chapel Hill-based South by North Strategies, Ltd., a research firm specializing in economic and social policy.
"The recovery has not yet delivered much in the way of meaningful job growth," he said.
Official jobless figures tracked by state and federal governments can be simplistic, Nichol said, because they don't count as unemployed people who have stopped looking for work, or people in part-time jobs unsuccessfully looking for full-time work.
"There are different estimates on what a more realistic figure would be, but it would be considerably higher than 9.7 percent," he said.
Also complicating the picture is that the downturn has not had the same effects everywhere. Some regions, like the Research Triangle area, have jobless rates considerably lower than the average, while others -- particularly in parts of the west and northeast -- struggle with significantly higher unemployment.
Joblessness is also disproportionately severe for blacks, according to a recent study by the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center and the Economic Policy Institute. The report found that the unemployment rate among blacks in North Carolina is about double what it is for whites.
"North Carolina has been hit hard by this recession, but unemployment has hit different parts of the state in different ways," Nichol said.