Growing signs of Georgia hiring surge after few job gains in February

The pandemic hit hospitality hard, a sector with a large number of women. Many of the jobs have not come back.
Caption
The pandemic hit hospitality hard, a sector with a large number of women. Many of the jobs have not come back.

Credit: Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Staffing companies, early indicators of a rebound, see acceleration

Georgia’s economy in February added jobs and cut unemployment, but at such a sluggish pace that it would take more than a year to reach pre-pandemic employment levels, state officials said Thursday.

Yet there are signs that the pace is speeding up.

“We have been just ridiculously busy,” said Frank Green, president of ExecuSource, an Atlanta-based staffing company. “I haven’t seen it like this since the late 1990s. And it was just — boom. Lights on.”

Staffing companies are often early indicators for hiring that does not yet appear in official statistics. In the early stages of a recovery, requests ramp up as companies scramble to quickly add workers to meet surging demand.

Nationally, more than half of staffing companies reported growth last month, and more than 90% saw expansion in the most recent week, according to Cynthia Davidson, the senior director of research for the American Staffing Association.

The New York Federal Reserve’s weekly economic index also has spiked, a signal that the economy is accelerating. Many government and private sector economists think massive federal spending and an increasingly widespread vaccination program will spark a robust expansion.

“We should be able to get back to a pre-pandemic unemployment rate by the end of the year,” said Heather Boushey, a member of President Joe Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, in a conference call with Georgia reporters last week.

Yet through February, Georgia hiring was disappointingly modest.

Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo, on Thursday blamed the sluggishness on weak hiring by state and local governments whose schools and colleges have not fully opened.

Georgia added just 1,700 jobs last month after losing jobs in January, the Department of Labor said Thursday. The unemployment rate dipped from 5.1% in January to 4.8%, which is less than half the jobless rate during the massive layoffs following the pandemic-triggered shutdowns last spring.

The state in February had 213,600 fewer jobs than a year earlier, the last month before the pandemic. But since May, Georgia has added back 392,800 jobs, according to Mark Butler, the state’s labor commissioner.

“As Georgians return to the workforce and businesses continue to hire, we can look forward to steady economic growth across the state,” he said.

The problem thus far has been that growth has not been in sectors that were hit hardest.

Nationally, new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to 657,000, the lowest weekly level in the past year. Georgia last week processed 24,789 new claims, up slightly from the prior week.

Since the start of the pandemic, 4.55 million state claims have been processed, with the highest number in food and accommodation, often low-wage jobs that depend on in-person transactions, according to the Department of Labor.

Amid contagion fears, consumers have been leery of spending time and money in restaurants and stores, shifting many of their purchases online. Many blue-collar jobs have been added — like those in trucking and warehouses — but nowhere near enough to make up for the losses.

Many of the better-paying jobs were not shut down by the pandemic, because they can be done from home.

Kids2, an Atlanta-based toy company, has 19 job openings in its home office, including design, human resources and finance jobs. “Many of the roles work remotely and may come into the Buckhead office on occasion for collaboration, training, or other team meetings,” a spokeswoman said.

In general, the hottest hiring has been in tech jobs, many of them for non-tech companies who need to buff up their online operations, said Green of ExecuSource. But there also has been high demand for accounting and finance positions — a very positive signal, since those jobs aren’t added until revenues can pay for them, he said.

There’s also an increased demand for front-line workers in logistics, manufacturing and retail call centers, said Jon Neff, chief operating officer of Hire Dynamics, a Duluth-based staffing company.

“We are up 20% compared with before the pandemic,” he said. “And really this is no surprise. Staffing is the first to go and the first to come back.”

Georgia job market, a year into the pandemic

Unemployment rate, Feb. 2021: 4.8%

Unemployment rate, Feb. 2020: 3.5%

Jobs, Feb. 2021 compared to Feb. 2020: -213,600

Jobs added, Feb. 2021: 1,700

New jobless claims during pandemic: 4.55 million

New jobless claims last week: 24,789

Average weekly jobless claims, year before pandemic: 5,548

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration